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Friday, January 24, 2014

Consumer Manipulation

Tim Harford talks about consumer manipulation:
Consider, first, confusion by design: Las Vegas casinos are mazes, carefully crafted to draw players to the slot machines and to keep them there. Casino designers warn against the "yellow brick road" effect of having a clear route through the casino. (One side effect: it takes paramedics a long time to find gamblers in cardiac arrest; as Ms Schüll also documents, it can be tough to get the slot-machine players to assist, or even to make room for, the medical team.) Most mazes in our economy are metaphorical: the confusion of multi-part tariffs for mobile phones, cable television or electricity. My phone company regularly contacts me to assure me that I am on the cheapest possible plan given my patterns of usage. No doubt this claim can be justified on some narrow technicality but it seems calculated to deceive. Every time I have put it to the test it has proved false.
I recently cancelled a contract with a different provider after some gizmo broke. The company first told me the whole thing was my problem, then at the last moment offered me hundreds of pounds to stay. When your phone company starts using the playbook of an emotionally abusive spouse, this is not a market in good working order.
This is a security story: manipulation vs. manipulation defense. One of my worries about our modern market system is that the manipulators have gotten too good. We need better security -- either technical defenses or legal prohibitions -- against this manipulation.

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