Of placebos,
wine, and Eeyore

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Most people know about the placebo response. Tell patients to expect to feel better following what they don’t know is a sham treatment, and, often, they will. Less known but equally powerful is the nocebo response, where telling patients they’ll feel worse can be just as self-fulfilling.

Non-medical products can induce placebo and nocebo responses, too. Not long ago, researchers at Stanford and Cal Tech asked test subjects to undergo fMRI scans while sampling one brand of wine retailing at five dollars a bottle and another brand retailing at 90 dollars a bottle. Subjects said they preferred the more expensive wine, and their brain activity per the fMRI scans seemed to confirm it.

But the researchers had pulled a fast one. Both bottles, it turned out, contained the same stuff.

The moral is that our expectations influence how we are going to process our experiences. We all understand that at some level. Even our everyday rhetoric reflects it, in phrases like never underestimate the value of a first impression and dress for success. 

Right or wrong, an airline pilot in a crisp uniform makes us feel safer than would the same pilot in cutoffs and a tank top. A Mont Blanc pen makes an entirely different expectation than a Bic. A firm handshake evokes greater competence than a dead fish.

Likewise, a digital banking app that makes a positive first impression is more likely to deliver a better perceived experience. 

Mind you, basic mobile banking functions such as balance checks, transfers, bill pay, and check deposit do not set apart an app any more than an inventory of baked goods sets apart a neighborhood bakery. But step into a spotless bakery wafting that fresh-baked bread aroma, where the help sport clean aprons and actually smile at you, and chances are you’ll rate their products higher than you would have in a blind taste-test. 

I check out a lot of digital banking apps in my job. I have seen apps whose design, accessibility, and copy seem to call out the moment you open them, This is going to be great. But I have to tell you, I have also seen plenty of the other kind. The kind that, although equally functional, greet users with an Eeyore-like, Meh.

I’m not out to embarrass or offend, so I’m not going to name names or provide links to the meh sites. My goal is to encourage digital bankers to take a second look at their apps. An otherwise great app that fails at first glance to create a positive expectation risks an inadvertent nocebo effect, doing itself, the financial institution, and its clients a disservice.

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