Why are we likely to spend more after reading the word “bye”?
The Bye-Now Effect, explained.
Where this bias occurs
The bye-now effect describes a specific word-priming scenario where the reading of the word “bye” causes us to think about its phonological twin, “buy”. When our frame of mind shifts to think of the verb “buy”, it may be able to influence our behavior.
For example, imagine that you are reading a magazine. You are reading the letter from the editor and she signs off with a big, bold, “bye”. Thinking nothing of it, you flip the page and see an advertisement for a perfume.
The buy-now effect suggests that you are actually more likely to buy the perfume because you just read the word “bye”. It is likely that the magazine strategically placed the perfume advertisement right after the letter from the editor, in order to have the word “bye” prime readers to shift their mind to the purchasing associations of the word “buy”. Although it is unlikely that we would consciously draw the connection between the two, the bye-now effect shows that we quite drastically change our consumption behavior based on priming words.
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The buy-now effect is but another cognitive bias that influences our financial decision-making. The buy-now effect stipulates that when we encounter the word “bye”, we are influenced to spend more money than we would if we had not seen the word. As a result, the buy-now effect is a bias that causes us to irrationally overspend.
The buy-now effect also demonstrates how our cognitive thinking can easily be misled by homophones. When we are presented with a lot of information, our brains find it difficult to correctly code each individual part of the cognitive load, and we end up mapping out inappropriate links to words.1 We lose focus on the meaning of individual words and instead consider the associations of phonologically related words. In reality, the only association between “bye” and “buy” are the phonological identities of the words, and reading one should not cause us to think of the other.
As the buy-now effect is a result of our inability to correctly focus on the individual meanings of words, it also means that some people are unfairly affected by it. Research has suggested that low-skilled readers would be more affected by the bye-now effect. Morton Gernsbacher and Mark Haust, cognitive psychologists, suggested that memory cells created in our brains have the ability either to activate or suppress the activation of other memory cells.2 They stated that low-skilled readers have worse access to recently read information, thereby making them more likely to activate the incorrect memory cells in recollection. They are worse at homophone suppression, and as a result, are more likely to be thrown off by homophones.2
As has been mentioned, the bye-now effect can help inform marketing strategies to entice consumers to spend. The bye-now effect demonstrates that small, subtle cues are sometimes enough to influence behavior, and therefore homophones are an easy trick that brands can use to boost spending and consumption. Alternatively, the fact that a singular word is enough to affect behavior means that companies need to be very careful when they choose their name, slogan, and branding. Just one wrong word could make the difference between a campaign being successful or not.3,4
One example of a poor name choice is the restaurant “Sam & Ella’s Chicken Palace” in Ohio. Although we may not realize it at a first glance, when we read “Sam & Ella”, we may be primed to think of a phonetically similar word, salmonella.5 This is definitely not a good association to be making with a chicken restaurant. This example demonstrates that while homophone priming in the case of the buy-effect may benefit companies, depending on the homophone, there can be negative consequences of word-priming as well.
Moreover, economic models are often based on the traditional view that consumers are fully aware of their decisions and behaviors. The bye-effect occurs on an unconscious level, meaning that we aren’t fully aware of what is influencing our decisions. This means that our models may be inaccurate. As they are often used to predict human behavior, biases like the bye-now effect suggest that we need to vastly rethink economic models.
Why it happens
Our brains are very complex and do not passively process stimuli. The buy-now effect is evidence that at any given time, our brains are considering the different links between words and other familiar concepts and associations. While these links are necessary to help us categorize the vast amount of information that we have to process every day, they may lead to us changing our behavior.
Word priming occurs because when we encounter a word, it acts as a nudge for our brains to map out the potential meanings associated with the word. When we encounter homophones, our brains are nudged to not only think of the associations of one word but any words that are phonologically similar. When you read the word “see”, for example, you may easily think about the “sea”.
Derick Davis and Paul Herr, the researchers who first studied the bye-now effect, believed that the bye-now effect occurs because of our inability to successfully employ homophone suppression when we encounter a large cognitive load.1 What that means is that it actually takes effort and skill to be able to stay focused on a particular word or meaning and to suppress any irrelevant associations, such as phonologically similar words. When we are presented with a lot of information, our brains are focused on processing that information and fail to retain focus for each specific part of the load. As a result, we get sidetracked by inappropriate meanings.
Why it is important
The bye-now effect is another bias that can impact our financial decisions, causing us to lose sight of rational and logical economic decision-making. If we were purely rational thinkers when it came to decisions involving money, we would not be influenced by the presence of a prime, because this should have no impact on how much we believe something is worth.
It is important for us to be aware of cognitive biases like the bye-now effect because they can be used as marketing strategies to try and manipulate us into overspending. When our purchasing decisions can be influenced by something as small as reading the word “bye”, it is clear that we are vulnerable to such strategies. Since the buy-now effect occurs on an unconscious level, we need to learn more about it to try and prevent ourselves from being influenced by it.
Although the bye-now effect specifically describes a situation in which the word bye causes us to think of the associated meanings of its homophone, buy, the process behind the effect can be applied to a number of different phonologically similar words that could influence all kinds of behaviors. It forces us to consider how the names, slogans, and branding that companies use are all carefully and tactically chosen to influence our semantic associations of the brand. For example, consider the company name “Starbucks”. The reference to money in the name could potentially be a source of priming.
How to avoid it
As has been mentioned, the bye-now effect operates on an unconscious level, making it very difficult to identify and avoid. It is impossible to stop our brains from thinking of the associations of a word because this is actually the only way we come to understand the meaning of words; they would just be letters on a page if they didn’t act as symbols for something meaningful.
The issue with the bye-now effect comes from thinking of inappropriate associations. The words “bye” and “buy” do not share similar meanings - they only share a similar sound. To avoid the bye-now effect, we need to be better at suppressing homophones. As research has shown that a reason for the effect is due to trying to process large cognitive loads, to avoid the bye-now effect, we can try to limit our cognitive load to remain focused.1 That can mean dividing up information into smaller chunks, or getting rid of distractions when we are trying to read an important article. The less information we have to process at once, the less likely we are to be primed to think of incorrect associations.
How it all started
Although studies examining how words act as primes have been around for a while, the bye-now effect was first studied by Derick Davis, a professor of commerce, and Paul Herr, a professor of marketing, in 2014.1 The professors understood the psychological phenomenon of priming, a technique where the introduction of one stimulus is used to make individuals think about another concept.6 In particular, Davis and Herr were interested in how words were able to prime both semantic and conceptually related concepts.
The two professors were primarily interested in homophones as a method of priming. Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but do not have the same meaning. They can be spelled the same, such as “bass” being the word used both for a kind of fish and a kind of instrument, or can have different spellings, such as “flower” and “flour”. Davis and Herr, due to their background in economics, wanted to examine the homophones “bye” and “buy”. They believed that reading the word “bye” could prime individuals to think about the verb buy and influence them to spend more as a result.
In their experiment, Davis and Herr asked their participants to read through a travel blog post. Participants were told they would then be asked to rate how informative the post was. In the control group, the end of the article was signed off with “so long”, whereas for the experimental group, the end of the article was signed off with “bye-bye”. Afterwards, the participants were asked to complete another task, which they believed was unrelated. Participants were told a new restaurant was opening up nearby. They were told the restaurant was promoting a “name your own price” dinner-for-two package. Participants were asked how much they would be willing to pay for the package.1
The results of the study were astonishing. Davis and Herr recorded that participants who had seen the “so long” version of the blog post were willing to pay, on average, just under $30, for the dinner package. In comparison, the participants who had seen the “bye-bye” version of the blog post were willing to pay, on average, just over $45 for the dinner package. From these results, Davis and Herr concluded that reading the word “bye” had primed participants to think of its homophone, “buy”, and the cognitive associations with that verb, making them more willing to spend money.1
Example 1 - The mother tongue
Homophones are language-specific, meaning that it is only in English that the words “bye” and “buy” are phonetically identical. In Spanish, “buy” translates into “compar”, whereas “bye” translates into “adios”.
These days, many companies operate on a global scale, and that can mean that their brand names and slogans are translated. If a company has tried to use the buy-effect or other homophones to their advantage, they need to realize that the effect will not occur in other languages. As homophones are language-specific, this also suggests that international companies need to have a better understanding of the language that they use, because a word that may not have a homophone in English could easily have one in another language and cause undesirable priming.
Furthermore, not all languages actually have many homophones, meaning that speakers and readers of that language are less likely to have problems with homophone suppression.3 Mandarin, the most popular language in China, is a less phonetic language because words are presented as symbols. It is a pictorial language, so the sounds of words doesn’t correspond to the way they appear in texts.7 This means that Mandarin speakers are less likely to have difficulty suppressing associated meanings of sounds since they don’t understand language phonetically.8
Example 2 - Priming and behavior
Although in the case of the bye-now effect, the homophone priming results in undesirable behavior, there are also cases where homophone priming can be beneficial for us.
Davis and Herr, the researchers who established the buy-now effect, also conducted a study on the homophones “wait” and “weight”.9 In this experiment, participants were told they had to complete a task. Some participants saw a “wait time” before they were able to complete their task, meaning that they read the word “wait”.
The task then asked participants to guess how heavy a grocery bag was. Davis and Herr found that participants who had read the word “wait” before completing their task had significantly higher guesses for the weight of the grocery bag, suggesting that the word “wait” had primed its homophone, “weight”.9
While guessing the weight of a grocery bag may not seem to have an important impact on our lives, Davis and Herr believed that the homophones “wait” and “weight” could be used to influence subsequent exercise or food-related judgments.9 This knowledge could therefore be used to promote healthier decisions. Companies or movements advocating for weight-loss could subtly use the word “wait” in the literature they circular, in order to help draw attention to weight and make people more likely to consider how their decisions relate to their health.3
What it is
The bye-now effect describes our tendency to think of the word “buy” when we read the phonetically similar word “bye”. As a result, our behavior is primed by the associations of “buy”, and this can cause us to spend more.
Why it happens
The bye-now effect occurs because when we have to process vast amounts of information, it is easy for our brain to mix up different links and associations. Even though “bye” is not semantically related to “buy”, they are phonetically identical, and the homophones end up causing us to think of inappropriate associations. Words are able to act as nudges which then can influence our behavior.
Example 1 - The bye-now effect occurs only for the English language
The bye-now effect is language-specific because it is only in English that the word “bye” sounds the same as the word “buy”. Different languages have different homophones, meaning that priming varies from language to language.
Some languages, like Mandarin, actually have very few homophones, because they are not phonetic languages.
Example 2 - Not all homophone priming has negative consequences
We want to avoid the bye-now effect because it causes us to deviate from rational purchasing decisions. However, priming caused by different homophones can have positive influences on our behavior. For example, the word “wait” is phonetically similar to the word “weight”. If we are primed by the word “wait”, we may change our exercise and food behavior, and this can have positive outcomes on our health and wellbeing.
How to avoid it
It is believed that the bye-now effect is more prominent when we are met with a large cognitive load. In other words, when we have to process more information, our brains find it more difficult to process each individual word of that information, making our homophone suppression worse. To try and activate homophone suppression, we should ensure that we are focused when we read something important. Focus can be achieved by splitting information into chunks or ensuring that we are in an environment with few distractions.