Affection Held Hostage – how my love for my wife got me duped in China

Chinese Scam

My Affection Held Hostage

In early 2014, I was invited to the global conglomerate *Huawei* in Shenzhen, China to do a few workshops on gamification. During this trip, I had an assigned tour guide that took me to the beautiful Tea Stream Valley for a full day trip. (You can see much of this trip, including my camel ride and a jaw-dropping lion dance performance, in my video series – The Beginner’s Guide to Gamification). Between all that excitement, the educational part of my trip came towards the end.

As I was leaving Tea Stream Valley, I saw people soliciting for pencil drawn portraits. My tour guide was using the restroom, so I decided to check them out and if they were any good – that’s the power of Core Drive 7: Curiosity. They saw me approach and asked if I wanted a portrait which I politely turned down.

I was about to leave, when I saw another artist drawing a portrait based on an iPhone photo for another customer. I asked (in Mandarin of course), “Oh, so if I give you a mobile photo, you can draw it too?” He responded, “Of course! Do you want one?”

I decided that this would be a great way for me to bring something back for my wife to show that I was thinking about her during my long trip away from home. Instead of just buying something expensive on the shelf at an airport, a hand-drawn portrait of her would be more personal and more endearing. It would show her that I actually spent time to have something unique and custom-made for her.

I asked the artist, “So how much for one?” He told me it was about the equivalent of $50 USD. I thought, “Wow, that’s extremely expensive, even by U.S. standards.” Instead of negotiating with him, which I generally dislike doing because it requires too much emotional energy, I decided to use the walk-away tactic in Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience.

“Sorry, that’s way too expensive for me.” As I started walking away, he rushed to say, “What if I could do it for $35?” I felt happy that my scarcity tactic was working, but $35 was still too expensive so I said, “Naw, like I said, it’s way too much.” Of course, I wasn’t bluffing. I truly did not intend to buy anything at that point.

He then said, “Okay…I can do it for $25. Since the day’s about to end, I’ll just do you a favor and wrap up with this one.” At this point, even though it still wasn’t very cheap (for comparison, a 90-minute massage in Shenzhen was only $25), I thought I haggled well by cutting his original asking price down by 50% – feeling a sense of Core Drive 2. He also just used a Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness tactic of “I like you, so I’ll do you a favor,” so I thought I might as well agree to do it. I’m on a fun trip anyway.

After working for twenty minutes, he was almost done with the portrait. It was alright. It wasn’t great but you could tell that it looked like my wife.(That was my main goal – I didn’t want her thinking that I was having another woman drawn!)

As he was wrapping up, he asked, “Would you like to add a transparent protective layer to the drawing? It will protect the pencil lead from being smudged.” I said, “Sure, sounds good!” He gave me a concerned look and said, “It’s going to cost more though.” Slightly surprised, I asked, “How much more?” He told me nonchalantly that for the protective layer, it was going to cost me $15 extra.

I then realized his sneaky tactic and felt fairly annoyed. I responded in an emotionally disturbed tone, “Then forget about it. I’m not going to pay $15 just for that layer.”

Then, with a very concerned and considerate facial expression, he explained, “But if you don’t add the protective layer, the pencil lead will definitely smudge in your luggage bag and ruin the whole drawing. Look how easily the pencil lead falls off.” He then proceeded to use his thumb to rub a corner of the portrait, and indeed a layer of graphite came off onto his thumb. “It would be such a shame if this nice drawing got destroyed!”

What would you do in this situation?

As you can imagine, it was a very uncomfortable situation to be in. Nevertheless, it was also a very compelling educational experience.

The power of Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance had taken over my behavior and I ended up paying him $40 for a rather mediocre drawing. And if you recall, just a few minutes earlier I turned down the same drawing for $35!

I walked away, reminding myself repeatedly, “I’m not buying his drawing skills for $40. I’m buying my wife’s happiness for $40. It’s totally worth it.”

Loss & Avoidance Lessons in this experience

A couple of very important observations in persuasive design should be made from this interaction.

I was highly compelled to take the Desired Action. I ended up paying $40 for 20 minutes of the artist’s work, even if I rationally understood that the price wasn’t fair nor its delivery honest. The “artist” made his money. In addition, I felt extremely uncomfortable after taking the Desired Action, and from that point on, would never be strongly inclined to purchase something from street vendors in China again.

This is very important to understand. Utilizing this Black Hat Core Drive is extraordinarily powerful in getting someone to take the Desired Action, but in the long run, it demoralizes the user’s experience and creates burnout which can lead to high turnover. Once they commit the Desired Actions, people don’t want to ever put themselves in the same situation again.

In the situation above, where the artist is only making money from one-off tourists, this tactic only harms other street vendors in China so it may be worth it. At least, until a few years later when all tourists know to avoid buying anything from sleazy street vendors – unfortunately, including the honest ones. However, in your own experience design, I’m guessing you would like your users to commit more Desired Actions subsequent to the first Desired Action, as they enter into the Scaffolding and Endgame Phases.

As a result, when we utilize design elements in an experience that appeal to Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, it should only be at critical bumps where you really need the user to take the Desired Action. This should be followed by a series of White Hat Core Drives to encourage and balance the motivations of the user. We will explore this theme further in Chapter 14 on White Hat versus Black Hat Motivation.

This is the beauty of the Octalysis Framework (from my point of view). We not only can use it to understand how to engineer and design for motivation, but we can understand and optimize for the nature of that motivation to make sure it fulfills both our short-term goals and long-term goals.

And if you must know: upon returning to California, my wife recognized herself in the portrait and was extremely touched by the gesture. I also felt extremely accomplished (Core Drive 2) because she was so happy and because my plan worked like a charm.

Perhaps the $40 was worth it after all.

Loss & Avoidance Design: Ultimate Loss vs Executable Loss

Loss Avoidance

Loss & Avoidance Design: Ultimate Loss vs Executable Loss

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance can be a tricky Core Drive to manage. If done improperly it can demoralize the user and lead to churn.

One important thing to keep in mind is that Loss & Avoidance is motivational in a proportional manner. The way users respond to Loss & Avoidance is generally proportional to how much they have already invested into the experience.

If users have played a game or used a product for ten hours, they will feel a more substantial loss than if they had invested only ten minutes. Starting over after losing is definitely more impactful on a player that’s invested a few days into the game and is on level 37, as opposed to a player who just started and is on level 2.

The key strategy here is that the experience designer should dangle the threat of a large setback (the Ultimate Loss), but should only implement (if at all) small marginal setbacks (the Executable Loss) to emotionally train the user in taking the Ultimate Loss more seriously. The Executable Loss reinforces the avoidance.

As a general rule from my own experience, the Executable Loss should never be greater than 30% of what the user has already invested in time and/or resources, and ideally never more than 15%. Generally a small loss of 2-5% is enough to motivate users to take the activities seriously. If the users lose over 30% of what they have originally invested, the odds of them feeling demoralized and quitting become extremely high.

Loss & Avoidance Design in Employee Motivation

Since it benefits no one if the user actually suffers heavy losses, it’s best to utilize the “ultimate loss” as a form of expectation management, with the system creating “grace systems” that the users appreciate but do not abuse.

For instance, in the workplace the manager may make it clear that performances below a certain level will result in being let go. So everyone becomes motivated, in a sure but limited sense, to avoid the dreadful loss. This Core Drive 8 manager may even exercise small loss-events ranging from pep talks, moving people off important assignments, to publicly scolding them (hint: generally a terrible idea). All to make sure the employees emotionally acknowledge this sense of loss, and are motivated to work harder.

However, when an employee has failed the performance goal and fully expects to be let go, the manager may execute another option. Knowing full well that turnover and retraining new talent is the least preferable outcome, the manager can tell the employee that the organization appreciates his effort and hard work, and that they will give him another chance to hit the target.

As you can see, the Ultimate Loss here is not actually implemented, but instead wielded as a black hat motivational tool. After this, the employee may appreciate the second chance and become more motivated to do the work. This then becomes an example of Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance setting up for Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, where the employee potentially starts to work harder because of a new sense of gratefulness towards the manager.

Happiness is Determined by Expectations

Expectations have everything to do with happiness and motivation. A hungry teenager in a poor country will have an extremely difficult time understanding why a perfectionist student in a developed country would be depressed for three weeks simply because she received a “B” in school. On the other hand, a student who expects to fail the class celebrates for a week when they obtain a B.

Similarly, a billionaire who lost a lot of money and became a millionaire might end up committing suicide, while the average person who end up with a million dollars would become ecstatic. From my own observations, our happiness is almost exclusively determined by our expectations matched against our circumstances. Based on that, the easiest way to become happy may be to adjust our expectations and appreciate what we do have, instead of becoming upset because of the things we don’t. Even many marriages fail because of unrealistic expectations for each other, leading to built up bitterness over the years that plagues the soul.

When it comes to interactions with people, it’s always easier to start off stern and then become lenient, rather than being nice and then executing harsh punishment later. The dynamic between Core Drive 8 and Core Drive 5 often determines the relationship between landlord/tenants, teacher/students, employer/employees, and government/citizens.

Of course, if the employee starts to take the second (or third, fourth etc.) chance for granted, then it is crucial to maintain the credibility of the Loss & Avoidance system and let the employee go. If the ones breaking the rules aren’t facing any real consequences, it demoralizes the experiences of those that are performing their parts, and overall motivation plummets.

With that said, one thing to always remember is that this same slacking employee may shine like a star if the manager actually implemented more White Hat motivation. Motivational designs such as providing more autonomy, feedback, and meaning, as opposed to pure punishment systems. However, since the scope of this chapter is to explore the nature and effects of utilizing Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, we focus mainly on the uses and effects of that Core Drive.

Lessons in Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance – Why don’t you take all my money?

Sunk Cost

“Why don’t you take all my money?” in Poker

The same type of Core Drive 8 behavior happens frequently in psychological wagering games such as poker. Consider the following situation in which many Texas Hold’em Poker players often find themselves:

At the beginning of a match, you may start off with a very strong hand, or set of cards. In order to avoid scarring off other players, you increase the bet by a small amount, so that anyone who has some hope of improving their hand in the current match stays. As more community cards (center cards that everyone can use and “share” to build their hands) are flipped, your hand remains strong and everyone continues to call your small bet by adding little increments to the pot. This often means that the players are not confident with their own cards, but they don’t want to fold (give up) yet in the hope of getting a better hand, so they keep putting in the minimum amount of money to stay in the round.

You continue to feel very good about your hand, especially compared to your opponents. Finally, when the last center card is turned over and there is nothing more to see or hope for, you feel like it is time to reap your winnings. But knowing that everyone else likely has weaker hands, you still don’t want to scare the entire table off. So you decide to put 40% of your chips in and see if anyone will challenge you with the same amount. You hope to get someone with a semi-decent hand to think that perhaps you are bluffing and bet against you.

With such a show of strength, most people fold because they are aware that you truly have a strong hand and they only have mediocre ones. But one individual suddenly goes “All-In” and pushes all his chips into the center.

This is a difficult moment for a poker player. You have already demonstrated full confidence and strength in your hand. Even if the other player also believed he had a great hand, he could simply match your bet instead of raising it. That way he could control the amount just in case your hand turns out to be stronger than his.

But by going “All-In,” this person is demonstrating that he is so confident in beating your high hand, that he doesn’t care what you might have. In poker, the worse hand a player can get is not the smallest hand at the table but the second largest hand. When you know you have a small hand, you simply fold and only lose a few chips. But when you believe you have the biggest hand at the table but ultimately don’t, you are at risk of losing all your chips.

In this scenario, you quickly do some calculations in your head and conclude that there are three possible hands that, though extremely unlikely, this other person could have to beat you with. Maybe he’s just bluffing? You become nervous and start to think about how he played his hand in the last few moves. Your rational brain becomes fully convinced that this person is not bluffing and has your hand beat. You’ve lost.

Irrational Bets based on Emotions

If you were a computer, your calculations would quickly recognize that losing 40% of your money is better than losing more than 40% of your money. And so you would fold your hand and acquiesce the loss.

However, the human mind thinks differently. In this moment, we tend to focus our eyes on the money laying on the table. We start feeling the pain of losing 40% of our chips and then start to have second thoughts: “What if he has a smaller hand? What if he is bluffing? What if he actually has a small hand, but he thinks it’s big?”

We forget that our rational brain has already determined that this person is not bluffing and has our hand beat. It’s our emotional brain that’s doing the thinking now. You also don’t want to look like a loser in front of others (Core Drive 5) after confidently raising your bets and suddenly bowing out upon the first challenge you face. Pride is an expensive thing to possess.

Finally, Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity kicks in to elevate another aspect of Loss & Avoidance. If you fold now, you will never know if the person had a better hand (In poker, a player does not need to reveal their hand if their challenge isn’t met by an equal or higher bet). You might live the rest of your life wondering if he actually had your hand beat or not, and that’s a terrible thing to live through!

As a result, you ultimately make the irrational decision: you push in all your money, simply because you don’t want to give up on the 40% you already committed. Through this, you choose to meet your opponent’s challenge and reveal both of the hands to see whose is bigger.

Finally, as you already know in your heart, the person reveals that he actually does have a better hand than you. Instead of losing 40% of your money, you have lost it all.

This is why in poker, the term “Tough Muck” refers to the situation where players fold a very strong hand after betting a lot of money. Any player can win money when they truly have the best hand, but only true professionals know how to execute tough mucks when they need to.

The Good Chasing the Bad in Investing

The same phenomenon happens in investing too. Say you are wealthy and invested a billion dollars into a biotechnology company called LOSR. After many years, they are running out of money but have yet to reach any conclusive findings. They tell you they are very close, and just need another $400 million to make that major breakthrough.

Now if you had just become knowledgeable about this company, you might conclude that based on the traction you have seen, the executive team is completely incompetent and you wouldn’t even invest $20 in them. Why throw money down the drain?

As in the poker example, our inability to cope with sunk costs pushes us to take irrational actions – putting in good money to chase after bad money. You end up reluctantly putting the extra $400 million into LOSR in order to save the $1 billion you’ve already sunk into it.

Sure, there might be a slim chance that the company does end up making a major breakthrough, in which case the world will think you are brilliant and insightful. However, you made the investment not because of clever wit, but simply because of your fear and attachment to what was already lost.

The financially rational decision here is to cut your losses and invest your $400 million into other, more promising opportunities. (Unless, of course, you are investing for non-financial reasons – such as preventing the epic tragedy of mad scientists experimenting on themselves due to lack of funding, and becoming super-villains that destroy civilization).

True to the nature of Black Hat motivation, you are strongly compelled to take the Desired Action, but do not necessarily feel comfortable with the behavior.

When to use Extrinsic Rewards to Motivate People

Extrinsic Rewards

The Advantages of Extrinsic Motivation Design

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Obviously designing for Extrinsic Motivation is not all negative. Besides enhancing a person’s focus on completing monotonous routine tasks, it also generates initial interest and desire for the activity.

Often, without there being extrinsic motivation during the Discovery Phase (before people first try out the experience), people do not find a compelling reason to engage with the experience in the first place. Promoting, “You will get a $100 gift card if you sign-up,” usually sounds more appealing than “You will utilize your creativity and be in a fun state of unpredictability with your friends!” (Though both actually utilize Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience.)

When people consider themselves “too busy,” they won’t justify spending time to try out your experience. But when you offer them an extrinsic reward to try out the experience, they will at least test it out, assuming of course that the reward is not an insult to the value of the user’s time investment.

Rewarding users $2 for trying a new search engine for an entire month is pretty weak, while paying people $3 to spend weeks going to stores, taking pictures, and sharing them with their friends is also a path to failure. It is better to not give them a reward at all!

And of course, as we have seen earlier, if people continuously justify doing something for high extrinsic rewards, their intrinsic motivation dwindles as the Overjustification Effect settles in.

Therefore, as Michael Wu of Lithium points out, it is better to attract people into an experience using Extrinsic Rewards (gift cards, money, merchandise, discounts), then transition their interest through Intrinsic Rewards (recognition, status, access), and finally use Intrinsic Motivation to ensure their long term engagement. Through this process, users will start to enjoy the activity so much that they will focus on relishing the experience itself without thinking about what can be gained from the experience.

The 8 Core Drives of Gamification (#8): Loss & Avoidance


(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

The 8th Core Drive of Octalysis Gamification

For a video walk-through, check out: Episode 17, Loss & Avoidance

Loss and Avoidance is the eighth and final core drive in my Octalysis Framework. It motivates through the fear of losing something or having undesirable events transpire.

A concept within many popular games is to stay alive in order to advance to the next round. Depending on the game’s design, dying or injuring your character means that you’re now forced to start over or lose something significant – be it coins, money, the number of lives you have, or other setbacks that make it more difficult to reach the Win-State.

This aversion towards loss is obviously not limited to games. There are many situations in the real world where we act based on fear of losing something that represents our investment of time, effort, money, or other resources. To preserve our ego and sense of self, Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance sometimes manifests itself through our refusal to give up and admit that everything we have done up to this point has been rendered useless.

Even new opportunities that are perceived as fading away can exhibit a form of Loss & Avoidance. If people do not act immediately on this temporary opportunity, they feel like they are losing the chance to act forever.

A common example can be seen in the coupons that arrive regularly in the mail. Let’s say you receive a coupon that gives you a 10% discount to a popular chain store that you have no interest in visiting, and the coupon is labeled to expire on February 12th.

Your brain may be absolutely certain that, if you let the coupon expire, the very next month you will receive the exact same coupon that expires on March 12th. But you might get an annoying feeling that you are somehow losing something if you don’t use the coupon before the expiration date. Rationally it shouldn’t matter, but you are compelled to think about the offer a little more. As a result, you become a bit more likely to go to the store for a discount that you may not truly care about.

Cropping your Losses in Farmville

Many social games effectively employ Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance to motivate players towards taking the Desired Actions. In the now familiar example of Farmville, if we look at the early part of their onboarding stage, we can see that avoidance design was already integrated into the system, inducing users to “log in” multiple times each day.

The first few minutes of Farmville seems very positive as the player spends time creating their avatar and starts working on their farm with an initial pool of free *Farm Cash*. However, Farmville soon demands that each player maintain their crops and livestock through routine farming chores – mostly in the form of coming back and clicking on the crops and livestock to harvest their products.

If you don’t return to reap your harvest within a given number of hours, as determined by the crops’ profiles (you can choose which crop to plant, which plays into Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback), you will lose your invested hard work and be shown demoralizing images of crops withering and dying. This mildly depressing incident upsets the user, compelling them to log back in frequently to keep their crops alive. The player becomes proactively involved in avoiding this negative outcome.

Gamification Farmville Dead Crops

When players lose their crops, it not only costs them Farm Cash to replace but also their time, as they have to replant and maintain new crops again. Each time you see the discouraging images of dead crops, you are hit with the triple whammy of having lost your time, effort, and resources.

Many years ago I was astonished at how effective this design could be, as my technology abhorrent mother suddenly became obsessed with playing Farmville. Back then, my mother was the type of person who thinks that technology is a source of evil that is polluting society and crippling authentic relationships; she still barely checks her email.

But in 2009, due to her close friend’s enthusiastic recommendation – a nice example of Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, my mother signed up on Facebook and started to play Farmville. The beginning of the Onboarding phase was smooth and fun, as she used the game to relax her mind and connect with her friends.

However, after a few months of playing, my mother would sometimes wake up at 5:00am in the morning simply to harvest her crops and prevent them from withering. It became so bad that when my mother needed to travel out of town, she would call up my cousin and ask if he could log into her Facebook account and help manage her farm. She needed to make sure her crops didn’t die. (Though she also used to ask me, being a son that was lacking in “{chinesefont}孝{latinfont}” as discussed in Chapter 5, I eventually deferred the responsibility so I could focus on my “other” important work).

At the time, this blew my mind. I initially thought the reason for most people to play games was because they had too many responsibilities in the real world and needed to immerse themselves into a fantasy world to escape those responsibilities. However, here you have a brand new set of virtual responsibilities that add on even more stress and anxiety to daily life. It didn’t make any sense.

Of course, today I understand the nature and power of Black Hat Motivation. For a period of time, Farmville was able to successfully increase its Daily Active Users Metrics and lower short-term turnover with this type of Loss & Avoidance design. That is, until users hit a “Black Hat Rebound,” where they eventually burn out and find the courage to pursue freedom outside of Farmville.

Flipping other Core Drives Off

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance complements many of the other Core Drives for an interesting reason: often it manifests as the reversal of the other Core Drives. You don’t want something bigger than yourself to fall apart (Core Drive 1), hence you act; or you don’t want to look like a loser in front of your friends (Core Drive 5), hence you make a purchase.

Some may argue that this doesn’t constitute a separate Core Drive. As an example, critics might point out that people are driven back to Farmville because they want to feel a sense of accomplishment or ownership and that the loss of either feeling is simply the removal of these drives. However, from a design standpoint, it is important to consider Loss & Avoidance as its own Core Drive.

This is because gaining something and preventing a loss is incredibly different from the standpoint of motivation. Studies have shown over and over that we are much more likely to change our behavior to avoid a loss than to make a gain. It forces us to act differently and plays by different mental rules. In fact, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman indicates that on average, we are twice as loss-averse compared to seeking a gain. This means that we have a tendency to only take on a risk if we believed the potential gain would be double the potential loss if the risk were realized.

Through using the Octalysis Framework, this differentiation improves behavioral design by specifically identifying opportunities to integrate proactive loss-avoidance mechanics that generate a more subtle set of motivational dynamics.

A Caveat: Avoiding the Avoidance

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