Lose weight by taking a picture? Selfies and the role of tangibility in behavioural influence

Selfies are everywhere, aren’t they? It’s the era of the self-portrait.

Well at least this trend might turn out to be good news for anyone looking to shed some kilos because researchers in Columbia have found 71% of subjects who kept a visual record of their weight loss progress (including weekly waist circumference measurements and photos of their torso) were able to meet their weight-loss objectives*.

“What patients want is a photo, rather than cold numbers,” the researchers said.

This got me thinking about the importance of tangibility – of making the abstract, concrete. You see, tangibility is one of the “big four” ingredients that determine whether a behavioural request is likely to be followed.


The Big Four

The Big Four components of a behavioural request are Tangibility, Immediacy, Certainty and Self-Worth. I call it my T.I.C.S. framework. I devised it after reading Phil Barden’s bookDecoded and collaborating with the talented researchers at FiftyFive5.

Here’s how each of the Big Four help or hinder getting people to do stuff.


Tangibility – how real does it feel?

People like it when the benefits are tangible – things we can see, touch, feel, smell or taste, and costs, less so. After all, it’s easier to rationalise our behaviour when the downside doesn’t feel real.

And what’s the usually the most tangible thing in a proposition to your customer?


Unfortunately the cost of doing business with you is often the most tangible, easily understood aspect of your pitch. It hurts because it is so real and this is why customers often tell you price was their objection even though it probably wasn’t. Price is a concept that is easy to latch on to as a short cut to justifying “no”.

Compounding this, benefits are often intangible. “Work with us because we have great relationships with our clients”. “Work with us because we promise it will be great”.

Sadly, unless you are selling a widget, you are probably selling an intangible promise and that’s why you have to work so hard to build trust and credibility.

How can you make an intangible seem more tangible? Case studies, testimonials, process specifics and project schedules. Seems dull but these things help to take your promise from abstract to concrete.

Immediacy – how long do I have to wait?

Thanks to short-term bias, instant gratification is often what influences decision-making. We love immediate payoffs and loath distant rewards. “Good news now, bad news later” is the mantra.

This too poses a business challenge when the benefits we offer are longer term but the sacrifice – expending effort, time and/or money – is felt by the customer immediately. Superannuation, saving or dieting are examples.

With Immediacy the solution is twofold. Create a benefit in the short-term – think discounts, value-adds and even welcome packs – and aim to defer the costs by offering small upfront commitment, low effort sign-up processes or the option to buy now, pay later for instance.


Certainty – can I be sure it will happen?

People love a certain outcome and struggle with ambiguity. Ambiguity makes us feel uncomfortable and places doubt in our minds. Doubt becomes fear and as I’ve written before, fear is the number one killer of conversion.

This again is a problem for many businesses that can’t guarantee results. There is no certainty around what your superannuation balance will be or whether you’ll make your goal weight for example. On the flip side, the cost of doing business with us is very certain – it comes in the form of an invoice!

While we can’t always guarantee our results, we can guarantee our work. Money back guarantees are a way of relaxing customers through certainty, while the use of case studies and testimonials can reduce ambiguity in the customer’s mind.


Self Worth – do I feel good about it?

Actions that support our sense of self are more desirable than those that make us question or feel bad about ourselves.

That means if a product makes customers feel uncomfortable about themselves, they will tend to move into avoidance mode. Life insurance is an example of this – consumers don’t really want to think about their mortality.

If you are in the category of “too icky to contemplate” products, there is an opportunity to normalise the desired behaviour. “Yes it’s hard to think about, but looks at all the smart people like you who are” type of approach. Tap into the universal desire we all have to feel we are progressing and you will find a way to support rather than undermine self-worth.

Are you curious about where your business fits on the T.I.C.S. framework and what it means for your behavioural strategy? Check out my free self-assessment tool, which is available in this blog post.


*Note the study was not a randomised control trial (RCT) so while it has been claimed by the researchers that the photo was an important motivator, this study did not actually test whether it was the picture that made the difference.


Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments