Behavioral Debt

I’m fortunate to be a part of several circles here in Silicon Valley that get together frequently to discuss big ideas and engage in all kinds of technology related philosophical questions. I started sharing a concept with this group and was encouraged to flesh it out further. So I would like to introduce it to all of you for thoughts and feedback. Consider this one of those posts you need to have your thinking cap on. I’m calling this concept “Behavioral Debt” and it explains why a company’s customers don’t act or do the things they want them to.

The simplest way to understand this is with the popular saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I am attempting to put more understanding around this idea as it relates to the consumer tech landscape. I run into issues around behavioral debt regularly in my research on the consumer market. Companies want to know why their customers aren’t buying new products or services they offer while their old ones seem to be all their customers are interested in. In most cases, what we observe is simply entrenched behavior that is very difficult to evolve. Once a behavior is established, debt is built up around it. The longer that behavior remains entrenched, the larger the pile of behavioral debt. The larger the pile of behavioral debt, the more difficult it is for that customer to climb out from under it.

Let’s use a tangible example in Facebook. Facebook would like to move into a more transactions-based model for the buying and selling of goods on their platform. Here we may likely see the messy reality of behavioral debt rear its ugly head. Consumers have built up years of behavioral debt doing a few main things on Facebook. Consumers are likely content in this reality and, when they want to buy something, they go to Amazon or some other established online merchant. Facebook wants to offer them the chance to do this on Facebook so they don’t have to leave and spend time and money somewhere else. But “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and I have a feeling convincing consumers to do anything more than they do today will prove quite tricky for Facebook due to the many hours/years spent building up behavioral debt in how they use Facebook.

Similarly, Intel, Microsoft, and the PC makers would all like to sell more of the 2-in-1 PC concepts. These devices are not the cheapest machines on the market but they offer better margins. The problem is, 2-in-1 PCs sell at a fraction of the volume of notebooks. What Intel and Microsoft have not yet learned is there is a massive amount of behavioral debt built up around the PC form factor. People understand it, they are comfortable with it, and they have established workflows on it. Many of you have heard me say those who grew up with a PC have a bias for it. This bias is explained by behavioral debt.

This idea of behavioral debt also showed up recently in our mobile payments study. In markets like the UK, where consumers have been tapping to pay with their physical credit cards for years, many consumers (nearly 40%) said they have yet to embrace paying with their smartphones (which they acknowledge is safer and more convenient) because it is still easier to use their physical cards to tap and pay. Another 25% said they simply forget they can use their smartphone to pay instead of their credit card. This is a prime example of behavioral debt and showcases why changing an established and entrenched behavior is extremely difficult.

This is why we observe consumers in emerging markets or the Gen Z kids of today do things with their smartphones and tablets many of us can’t believe. We see them do things and think there is no way they can do them without a PC. The reason this “you can’t do real work on a tablet” phrase keeps erroneously showing up is because those who use it have a ton of behavioral debt around PC-based workflows. Those who do not have PC behavioral debt are free from those biases and are able to break what seems like new ground but is entirely natural to them.

This should also be recognized by startups trying to do something similar but better than what a popular service already does. We see startup after startup offering a feature, like a messaging app or a commerce store that proposes to be better than what hundreds of millions of people already use. More often than not, these fail because, when behavioral debt is built up, the person rarely wants better — they simply want familiar.

Getting customers to break free from behavioral debt is very hard. It also seems it is very rare given the case studies I’m finding and working through. In fact, it could be observed it is so rare when consumers fundamentally change a behavior that it should be considered quite profound. Doing so means an acknowledgment the new way is dramatically better and thus the behavior change is swift. This happens less frequently than we often believe in consumer markets. This one point, circling back to Facebook, is what makes something like Snapchat so interesting. Snapchat is on pace with Facebook in the number of videos played. The main difference being the vast majority of videos played on Facebook are not clicked on where in Snapchat they are. Facebook wants/needs videos to be successful but their users just want to get on Facebook, post a picture or share something, see some posts from others and move on. Getting video engagement has been a challenge for Facebook because of their users’ behavioral debt. But with Snapchat, video was the assumed experience from the beginning. Starting fresh means starting without behavioral debt. This is why, in my opinion, Facebook must continue down the road of acquiring a family of assets which encompass the needed consumer behavior. Buy Snapchat for video, Twitter for real-time news and global social communication, and whatever else springs up.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

19 thoughts on “Behavioral Debt”

  1. Inertia is the same thing as what you’ve defined as behavioral debt. Inertia is the resistance to change. Why we need a seemingly new concept such as ‘behavioral debt’, which is just a synonym escapes me, but I digress…

    But maybe that’s part of the very point you raise. There is something ‘new’ that’s offered which is just rebranded ‘old’, but sold as new. That has a disingenuousness about it. The value proposition for the ‘new’ is absent or insufficient. This probably is worse for lay users than deeply informed users. A deeply informed user can more easily be convinced if given a solid reason to switch (remember the ARC vs. ZIP wars of the ’80s?).

    So why NOT switch to Facebook for buying over Amazon? Let me count the ways intertia plays a role (I refuse to switch to the term ‘behavioral debt’. See what I did there? ;-))…

    a) I have a track record with Amazon, and therefore a confidence level, AND expectation level.

    b) All my credit cards are stored on Amazon already. Switching requires effort on my part.

    c) Niche players started as being the ‘best at’ something. This gives mind share over that ‘something’.

    d) Almost all buyer/seller relationship are competing ones (fans ruled out). Why should I care if Facebook succeeds? What’s in it for me?

    “This is why we observe consumers in emerging markets or the Gen Z kids of today do things with their smartphones and tablets many of us can’t believe.”

    This is due to the conjoining of two age old concepts.
    “Because if all you have is a hemmer, everything looks like a nail” + “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

    Sorry for the unenthused response, but it’s an honest one.

    1. I have the same thought about the need to coin a new phrase when there is already one that suits perfectly fine. But such is the landscape in business schools and business consultancy if you want to rise above the generic mass. Got to come up with that exotic-sounding new terminology that managers can trot out in their weekly meetings to impress their bosses and intimidate their subordinates.

      The other term I have in mind in place of ‘inertia’, and this is partly tongue in cheek, is ‘laziness’ especially the mental variety. So much of advertising and promotions (and even product development) is about how to overcome consumers’ mental laziness. “I can’t be bothered to even think about trying something different when I’m so used to doing it this way and it has seemed to work fine so far.”

      This is compounded by lessons kids learn early on when they see that ad on TV about some amazing new multi-morphing toy which they obsess about all day and all night and when they finally get it from Santa, it turns out to be just lumps of brightly colored clay. And maybe instructions on basic stop-motion photography using a cell phone. The trauma of disappointment from an overhyped toy lasts a lifetime. Well, I exaggerate, of course.

  2. There’s other things on top of behavioral debt. 2 in 1s for example:
    1- as you say, they offer better margins. ie, they’re a lot more expensive than equivalent 1-in1s, to the point were you can get a tablet *and* a laptop (actually, more than 1 of each at least for tablets) for the price of a single 2-in-1. Granted, the 2-in-1 has advantages for some (1 device does it all, no need to synch, transfer files, work at the desk…), but so does having several separate devices (more battery, more screens, more storage, more concurrent users…)
    2- they use manufacturer-specific, sometimes even product range-specific docks and such. That compounds the cost issue, and make them an iffy investment that’ll need re-upping with each device change.
    3- they’re compromises: not the lightest tablet, not the lightest laptop, not very sturdy… a friend of mine who wants the most ultra portable thing keeps pointing out that a 2-in-1+keyboard is bigger, heavier, and a lot more expensive than an ultrabook. Ditto for storage, performance…

    Behavioral debt sure explains a bit. Common sense explains more, I think.

    1. Yeah, to a large degree “build it and they will come” only works in the movies. Some companies just don’t want to admit that what the are building or features they are adding just isn’t that compelling or make sense in a currently existing product and just complicates things. So instead, blame the old habits of the customers.

      Snapchat vs Facebook also demonstrates the effect of focus vs diluting focus of tasks. Adding complexity is not always the answer.


  3. “I’m calling this concept “Behavioral Debt” and it explains why a company’s customers don’t act or do the things they want them to.”

    Your concept is being widely studied. It’s called behavioral economics. The coverage is quite expansive and deep; psychology, neuroscience, microeconomics, and more…

    The field pretty much covers all behavior: heuristics, framing, and market inefficiency. Probably the most popular usage is in the sub-field of finance.

    You should look into the field and sub-fields. We are a small trading firm that applies mathematic models using behavioral economics to find aberrations, inefficiencies, market shifts, curve placement. We study all assets and allocations, then manage risk accordingly.

    Have a happy research…

    1. Yes, I’m super familar with it and have been appying it to our research for many years. I’d consider what I’m proposing as a underlying element of behavioral economics among many others.

      I’ve been a long student of anthropology and how to apply that to consumer reserach for many years.

      1. ‘Behavioural debt’ is probably not as clear a phrase as you’d like it to be.

        As a few commenters have argued, there is a force of habit element to it, there is an element of managing/reducing complexity, there is the knowledge that hyped new products are often a disappointment and hence risky. I would add that consumers also have a workflow in which they use products. In other words, all products exist in context, they get used for a certain purpose and together with other things. Changing the product without its context makes no sense.

        All of this a long way of agreeing with the Dr Johnson aphorism that “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

        1. ah yes, the workflow point is a good underlying tone here. What I am still working on, which this articulation I’m doing is just the foundation for, is how profound it is when a behaviour is changed and in some caes changed quickly. I’m building some examples of this, but I’d argue that the clearest expression of a truly magical feature or product is when it causes a near instaneous behaviour change to which the consumers agrees they can not go back to the old way. I’d argue this is rare but again when it happens says something profound about the experience.

  4. Congratulations, you have found a way to repackage a timeworn concept
    that everyone knows about – “force of habit” – into something
    new-sounding with a catchy buzzword name that will surely sound exciting
    to the your corporate clients.

    “Getting video engagement has been a challenge
    for Facebook because of their users’ behavioral debt.”

    It’s not that nobody clicks on videos out of force of habit, it’s that
    people have learned that 90% of videos appearing on their feed are crap,
    no matter how catchy the headline makes them seem, so they avoid
    clicking on videos because experience has taught them that only a small
    select number of videos are worth their valuable time. When in doubt,
    it’s less painful and less time wasting to not click. This is especially
    true when the bulk of your feed comes not from people you know and
    like, but from people you are related to or are mildly acquainted with,
    whom it would be socially awkward to “unfriend.”

    Technical debt is a bad thing. The longer you leave the quick and dirty shortcut code in place, the more difficult and expensive it gets to remove it and replace it with something done properly.

    How on earth is force of habit a bad thing that costs more and makes things harder the longer you ignore it? As you point out, when the new way of doing things is clearly superior, people change their habits with dizzying speed. When the new way of doing things benefits nobody except the bottom line of the corporation that wants people to change how they live, that’s when habits die hard and slowly. So, basically, your label adopts the point of view of the marketers and entrepreneurs.

    It is, after all, far easier to blame potential customers than to admit that maybe your product isn’t actually worth all that much. The users are being bad, they’re running up huge amounts of buzzword debt. And it is “our” job,
    us being the Silicon Valley insiders, to find a way to make them change
    their bad, dirty, unprofitable habits into ones that are more beneficial
    to us.

    This post reminds me a lot of a post you made back in March on non-smartphone owners. That post reeked of condescension, of
    you talking to your social group of tech-loving smartphone early
    adopters about the results of your anthropological research among those
    incomprehensible “others” who don’t love technology and don’t use
    smartphones. And I don’t mean anthropological in a good way, but in the
    manner of elitist 19th century white men talking to other elitist white
    males about the quaint, backward customs of “the poor” or “country folk”
    or faraway tribes of brown people.

    There’s two kinds of tech market research analysts. There’s ones who cross the bubble between the corporate insiders/marketers and the outside world, who educate the inhabitants of the Silicon Valley echo chamber about how people outside that chamber live and think and work so their clients can make better products for the 99% who don’t live inside the echo chamber. And there’s ones who decide crossing the bubble and understanding the people outside is too hard and too much work, so they add to the echo chamber instead of working to break it down. This article and the earlier one
    about non-smartphone users suggest to me that you don’t belong as firmly
    to the first group as you might like to think.

    1. Probably easier to hear me talk about it than read it ;). Pretty sure if you heard me talk about these things you would change your mind. You don’t get into the types of conversations I do talking to consumers without sound empaty. I’m clearly not coming across as I do in real life if that it the true take you get. I’m the farthest thing from a tech elitist you can find. I live in the country and am a redneck in silicon valley for crying out loud 🙂

  5. So I guess that I keep thinking about this should mean that this is a good, thought provoking article. So kudos.

    Obviously there must be sub-categories or variations to this theory. I don’t think all consumer behaviour can be reduced to “they simply want familiar” in the same way I don’t think all businesses’ new offerings (features or products) can be automatically considered “better”. 2-in-1’s being “better” is arguably subjective, particularly from the consumer perspective.

    The use of “debt” is also loaded. Who incurred this debt? Is it really the consumer? Or is it the business? I would argue in Facebook’s case this is clearly Facebook’s debt to pay off. Facebook’s interest in new features (videos and market place platforms) for their service is completely out of the blue from what they first introduced and the expectations they have created for the service. Especially in light of what the incumbents are already providing—such as Amazon, Craigslist, and Snapchat.

    As for the UK example, “which they acknowledge is safer and more convenient”, while safer may be a given, obviously it isn’t THAT much more convenient, if it is at all. Using my credit card only requires me producing it. Using my phone requires me to set it up with my credit card. Sure only one extra step, but an extra step all the same. And then set it up again when I (inevitably these days) have to set up a new credit card because of fraud.

    However, I think the theory is spot on WRT the traditional Western PC paradigm vs the genZ/developing markets mobile device paradigm. That is clearly a behaviour centric deviation. Which makes me curious how you parse out the workflow affect.

    Great mental nosh as usual.


      1. I kind of feel like it all belongs to the business. Isn’t this the whole point of branding and positioning, either of products or a company overall? If they have positioned their products or themselves to serve a certain need, it is not the customers’ fault when the new features or products veer from that brand.


        1. Right. I don’t want to coin a new term because it’s not new, but the old way, product, method, etc., is where the customer was not only emotionally, but financially, and other wise invested. Hence inertia.

          1. Yeah, live performance companies that perform a regular season deal with this, too. A theatre company known for doing Broadway based and style shows can’t do new works because their patrons won’t come. Another theatre company that is known for new works can’t get their patrons to come see their production of _Cats_. Real situations. I know those companies. You can’t put that on the consumer. That’s the company’s doing.

            So I don’t know how, or if, the theory accommodates this.

            “Companies want to know why their customers aren’t buying new products or services they offer while their old ones seem to be all their customers are interested in.”

            And it could be they just aren’t that into you.


  6. As a user rather than an insider, I would like to share some of my thoughts on why I don’t or won’t be using some of the services/products mentioned by you.
    Facebook’s Marketplace is just the latest attempt, after a series of failures (and finally success in Groups), to get buyers/sellers using their platform on a larger basis. However, I just do not trust Facebook with any of my financial information. This is not from a fear of a breach, but instead one of abuse since Facebook’s real goal is to gain control of a new subset of data to feed to its ad business, something I am quite loathe to do.
    This speaks to the credit apps available to use. The variety and breadth of apps is jaw-droppingly large and yet none works in concert with another while using different methods to complete the transaction. In addition to the previously mentioned inconvenience of having to set up the credit app from the start, which one do you choose? What if the wifi is poor or the app won’t open? Plastic cards are just that much easier and faster to use than smartphones or twisting one’s arm awkwardly to scan a smartwatch (that itself is tethered to a smartphone so why do I need it again?). Plus, this seems the case of someone coming up with an untapped data subset (same as Facebook’s) and devising a method to get and control that data than to solve a real problem.
    I work with a tablet everyday in my job and I like the access that it gives me to data since I am not at a desk. But my like comes with one big caveat: I really hate the touchscreen aspect because the slightest touch to the wrong part of the screen sends it off to another page, something my laptop doesn’t do because I have a keyboard that only affects the screen via a small, select array of keys. I don’t like them for my private use simply because they’re too cloud-based and, again, I don’t trust the companies out there but this time to not lose my data. I also have no personal need for many of the features inherent in tablets especially since I don’t have to bring work home with me. I don’t even use most of the “special” features in my laptop or browser so why do I need a screen I can draw on when I don’t draw?
    As for Facebook and its video, I couldn’t stand when autoplay videos showed up on sites I visited long before Facebook started pushing video at everyone. I would rather read a story than watch a video about the same because I can skim a text-based story. Most videos seem to want to take their time getting to the point or leave out any depth making it a version of a really long headline. In other words, they’re crap.
    The bottom line is that most of these examples you brought up have a commonality: each helps their creator control new data to sell for advertising rather than fill a real need (yes, Microsoft is collecting data about how users use their devices unless one goes in and changes the defaults). So if part of your job is to advise businesses to examine whether or not people really need a service/product than to simply try to help them overcome user “resistance”, please tell them those are probably some of the reasons.
    BTW: Facebook’s three second count for views of videos is a cheat. That is about the same time it takes to swipe it away.

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