My Two Wallets

March 30, 2010 in Economics, Essays, Marketing

In my professional life I often spend time thinking about how much people value a product or service in an effort to estimate the prices they might be willing to pay. One of the biggest mistakes I always make in these evaluations is that I put too much emphasis on money.

Lately I’ve been seeing other people make this same mistake all the time (much easier to spot the mistakes of others!) so I thought I might share this little analogy I use to help myself think about the problem.

I picture myself, a consumer, as having two wallets. One in my right pocket and one in my left. These wallets represent how I think about payments, rewards, prices and cost.

My Right Wallet

My right wallet is the money wallet. This is the fairly standard stuff. I’ll agree to work a job because it pays €x per hour. I’ll buy product A over product B because it’s €2 cheaper. I’ll buy this item because I think it’s worth the price.

When we think about consumer behaviour this wallet is easy to understand and easy to address:

“How do we get more people to buy our product?” – “Let’s reduce the price”

“How can we get him to work more hours?” – “Let’s increase his bonus”

My Left Wallet

The left wallet deals with all the rewards, incentives and prices that are non-monetary. Although most people understand it, it is often overlooked. Even when it is considered, it’s importance is usually underestimated.


Thinking about payments made from the left wallet can often help us understanding seemingly irrational behaviour.

Why have there been 10 billion song purchases on iTunes when they’re all available for free elsewhere online? Because ‘free’ is only the price for my right wallet, my left wallet is paying time to find them, guilt for not supporting the artist and fear of doing something illegal.

If I have money in my right wallet but no time in my left (i.e. I’m a working professional) I’ll get my music from iTunes. If I have no money in my right wallet but loads of spare time in my left (i.e. I’m a student) I’ll get it from Napster.


A similar divide exists when you’re paying people to perform an activity.

I saw Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, speak at the recent Dublin Web Summit and describe how his open source project is built and maintained by a legion of unpaid developers. He was asked how he manages to “pull this off” by an audience member, with the implication that this was exploitation.

On on the surface it seemed like a valid point. Who are these idiot developers and why are they working for nothing? But after one look at the platform they’ve managed to build, it’s clear that these unpaid developers are no idiots. The answer becomes obvious when we apply the two-walleted analogy – they are getting paid, just not into the most obvious wallet.

I’ve never been a developer on a project like this, so I can’t claim to know exactly what reward they feel, but the internet is full of Open Source projects created and maintained by tribes of workers – none of whom get paid money, but all of whom get some form of reward. The “payment” to the left wallet comes in many guises: happiness, accomplishment, social status, achievement, inclusion, belonging, recognition, reputation, pride.

There are many things we do in life just for the sake of our left wallets – friendship, community building, sport – so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that people will work for these rewards too.

Left vs. Right

The interesting part of the analogy comes when we stop thinking about each wallet in isolation and start to look at how they work together. Specifically, when we look at the exchange rate between the two. I’ll explain what I mean by this with two real-world, offline examples:

The Day Care Dilemma

The first example comes from a study done at day care centres in Israel, recording the time of day at which parents collected their children. At the beginning of the experiment most children were collected on time, but naturally some parents were late on occasion. For the most part, parents made their best effort to be on time each day and few were ever more than 30 minutes late. There was a social cost associated with being late: feeling guilty, imagining that their children might get punished or just feeling embarrassed for being considered a bad parent. These costs were paid for from the left wallet.

A few weeks into the study, some centres began to fine the parents for being late – roughly €5 for every 10 minutes. Thinking about the effect this fine would have on the parents’ behaviour, most people would expect them to try avoid the fine. Therefore, one would expect the number of late collections might decrease. The complete opposite happened. Late collections rose, but not just by a small amount – parents facing the fine were almost twice as likely to arrive late as those who faced no punishment.

This is because parents don’t combine the payments from each wallet, they substitute them. Once they started paying in cash they no longer felt that they were paying in guilt or embarrassment. And the exchange rate was fantastic! When they make the mental conversion, €5 is a much lower price to pay than feeling like a bad parent.

The “punishment” implemented by the day care centres turned out to be nothing more than a discount.

Thanks at Blood Banks

A similar effect can be found with payments into the left wallet, as opposed to costs out. A great example of this come from studies on the economics of blood donations. The data shows that when blood banks switch from asking for voluntary donations and start paying donors, the total level of donations fall.

This again is because of the mental substitution of the left wallet for the right. In a voluntary system, the blood donor’s reward is a sense of civic duty, of moral good and of helping someone in need. In the cash-for-blood system, the cash payment replaces the social payment, and the exchange rate kills the service – no reasonable amount of money can equate to the feeling that you might save another person’s life.

Applications to Business

The applications to business, especially online business, can be hugely important – the blood donation principle in particular. When people suggest paying Wikipedia contributors for writing good articles we can now immediately see why that wouldn’t work – the monetary reward necessary to substitute for the social reward would just be too big for Wikipedia to afford. The same goes for the question posed to Matt Mullenweg about paying his WordPress developers. The answer is now obvious: they are being paid…. into their left wallet, and the exchange rate to switch to the right wallet is just too big.

This is why sites like Mahalo – that pay users low amounts of dollars for contributions – probably won’t work. This is why sites like foursquare and Digg– which pay users with social rewards like status, reputation and gaming achievements – will.

While we’re on the topic, the Irish blood Transfusion Service seem to understand these principles quite well – they offer different “rewards” for different levels of commitment, all of which are paid to the donor’s left wallet. For example, after 10 blood donations you get a pin and after 50 they take you out to dinner! Looking at their ads (below), they tackle both sides of the coin. One set attempt to increase the social reward (gratitude) and the other to reduce the left-wallet cost (fear, time).

Reducing The Social Cost Of Blood Donations

Nothing New

Of course, none of this theory is anything new. Behavioural Economics has been around for quite some time (Dan Ariely and James Heyman, for example, illustrated the difference between “Monetary and Social” payments in their 1992 paper “Effort for payment: A Tale of Two Markets”). The study has become quite popular in the last few years, with much of this post inspired by recent books like Predictably Irrational and Behavioural Investing.

The “new” bit that I hope to bring to the table is the Two Wallets metaphor. I’ve understood behavioural economics for quite some time, but I consistently neglected it when planning business decisions and thinking about consumer behaviour. So now I always imagine people as having two wallets from which they pay me, and two wallets into which I can pay them. This helps keep the behavioural science at the top of my mind, without having to remember all the science!