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The Endowment Effect: Understanding Bias in User Research and UX Design


DesignImpulse - The Endowment Effect: Understanding Bias in User Research and UX Design

The Endowment Effect is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the tendency of individuals to assign a higher value to items they own compared to identical items they do not own.

In other words, people often overvalue the things they possess simply because they possess them.


This effect was first introduced by the economist Richard Thaler in the late 1970s and has since been studied in various disciplines, including psychology and behavioral economics.


The concept challenges traditional economic theories, which assume that people make rational decisions based on the objective value of goods and services.


Key elements of the Endowment Effect include:

  1. Ownership Impact: The mere act of owning something seems to create an emotional attachment and an inflated perception of its value. This can be applied to a wide range of possessions, from personal items like clothing and gadgets to more abstract things like ideas or beliefs.

  2. Loss Aversion: The Endowment Effect is often linked to the psychological principle of loss aversion, which suggests that people prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. This means that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of gaining the same thing, leading individuals to value their possessions more highly. (Loss Aversion in User Research Refer this article )

  3. Bidirectional Influence: The Endowment Effect can work in both directions, influencing not only how individuals value their own possessions but also how they perceive items offered to them. For example, if someone is presented with an opportunity to acquire an item, they may underestimate its value if they do not already own it.

  4. Consistency with Cognitive Dissonance: The Endowment Effect aligns with the theory of cognitive dissonance, which suggests that individuals strive for consistency in their beliefs and behaviors. Once someone owns an item, their mind may rationalize its value to maintain internal consistency, even in the face of contradictory evidence.


Understanding Endowment Effect?

The endowment effect in psychology and behavioural economics refers to an emotional bias theory in which people overvalue their belongings, often irrationally or higher than the actual market value.

In simple terms, people tend to place a higher value on something that is already in their possession and overvalue it, over an identical item for sale.

This phenomenon involves a role of the psychological inertia theory of “no-change” where people tend to stick with the status quo instead of making a change unless they are provided with a substantial incentive.

For example, if a person offers a child to exchange their favourite toy with a new toy, chances are they will not exchange it and will instead choose to keep their favourite toy.

This phenomenon of the endowment effect is also known as “Mind over Market Value” or the “psychology of ownership“.


Endowment Effect Psychology 

A person’s perceived product value = Market Value + Emotional Value

The endowment effect comes into existence when an object has an emotional backstory or a symbolic significance to an individual. This attachment results in an emotional value of the product which adds to its market value.

Thus, the new value gets equivalent to the combination of the product and emotional values – which results in an overestimation of an object’s value. 

For instance, a person may even want to pay $500 to get his wallet back which originally had $100. Just because the wallet was a gift from his late mother.

Psychologically speaking, two concepts closely relate to and influence the endowment effect –

  • Status quo bias, and

  • Loss aversion. 


Status Quo Bias

Status Quo Bias is an emotional bias that prevents a person from undertaking any action to change the current or previous state of affairs.

For example, a person watching Netflix may keep watching that show just because he doesn’t want to stand up and pick up the remote.

When the status quo bias gets amalgamated with ownership, it becomes a primary stimulus resulting in the endowment effect. For example, a person owning an iPhone wants to be in the league of iPhones, as switching to android would require the person to give up the exclusive feeling of being an Apple user.


Loss Aversion

Loss aversion refers to a cognitive bias phenomenon in which people focus on avoiding losses more than on acquiring equivalent gains. 

For instance, an individual receives a job offer that pays him $100 if he does it, but he pays $35 if he fails to do it. Chances are he will decline the offer because, more than being happy about earning $100, he is afraid of losing $35.

Similarly, if a person invested in a stock, losing 2% of the invested amount will cause more anguish than gaining the same percentage.


"Sometimes the value of something lies not in what it's worth, but in the memories and emotions it holds."

Applications Of Endowment Effect In Marketing

With changing marketing trends, marketers increasingly use psychological and economic factors to drive conversions. The endowment effect is one such factor which marketers use to increase sales.


Haptic Imagery 

Haptic imagery is a cognitive process where people mentally experience an object’s physical properties without actually touching or feeling them.

For instance, if an author asks the readers to imagine touching a feather, the haptic imagery will activate a sense of softness in their minds.

Product descriptions, images, videos, and other visual elements used in marketing are often designed to evoke a haptic response from the audience.

For example, Mac shows 63 shaded foundations and illustrates each shade using a model of different skin tones. This makes it easier for a customer to choose the correct shade for her skin tone as she can imagine what the product will feel like on her skin. Just this thought triggers an emotional connection with the product, making her more likely to buy it.


Free Trials

Free trial is an acquisition model that offers a product or service to customers free of charge for a limited time before the customer purchases it.

It revolves around a strategy that giving the chance to customers to use the products before paying for them will kick-start the endowment effect.

The endowment effect is the reason why car companies offer test drives, and YouTube offers 30-day free trial. The longer time people spend customising and using the product, the greater the sense of ownership gets, and the harder it is to give up.


Free Return Policy 

The free return policy allows customers to return the purchased product to the retailer free of cost under certain policies drafted by the company.

 A study on Return Policy and the Endowment Effect shows that customers face a harder time returning the purchased product as they start to value the object more once they own it.

And that is a proven fact because statistics show that though 79% of customers want a return policy, only 30% of them choose to return products ordered online. 


Freemium Versions

Freemium is a portmanteau of the words “free” and “premium”. It is a strategy in which a company offers basic or limited features in the free version of the product or service and charges money for advanced features or an upgrade.

In Spotify’s free version, users can skip ads and use the shuffle feature while listening to songs – basic features with ads. But with Spotify premium, users can download songs, listen to uninterrupted music, share playlists with friends, and get more features.

The endowment effect plays an important role in the success of freemium models. People are more likely to upgrade to a better version if they have already used the free version and grown accustomed to it. It is easier for them to part with their money if they have experienced the product or service first – even if it was simply a limited experience.


Virtual Visualisation/Virtual AR

Virtual Visualisation or Virtual AR bridges the gap between the digital world and the physical world by providing users with an enhanced experience. It allows customers to view products in 3D, interact with them as if they were in a physical store and gain a more realistic understanding of what the product looks like and functions.

For example, Lenskart’s virtual AR allows users to scan and analyse their faces, detect the face shape and temple size, and then recommend frame shapes that will suit them best. It also allows users to try 1000s of looks in just a few clicks. 

This strategy serves as an emotional trigger that leads to a feeling of ownership and endowment effect, thus influencing purchasing behaviour.

Amazon lets customers virtually fit furniture in their house before they buy it. This provides the customers with a tangible simulation of how furniture would look in their home, allowing them to make an informed decision. This strategy again can be seen as an application of the endowment effect.


"The Endowment Effect teaches us that what we own ends up owning us, shaping our perceptions and decisions."

The Endowment Effect in User Research and UX Design

The endowment effect plays a significant role in user research and UX design by influencing how users perceive and value products they own. This psychological phenomenon leads individuals to place higher value on items simply because they own them. 

In the context of UX design, leveraging the endowment effect can enhance product adoption and retention. By making tools emotionally appealing and giving users a sense of ownership, designers can capitalize on this effect to personalize the onboarding process and potentially convert users into paying customers. Understanding user psychology, including principles like the endowment effect, is crucial for creating engaging and effective user experiences. Designers can apply this knowledge by providing personalized experiences to make users feel a sense of ownership over the product, ultimately improving user engagement and satisfaction. Additionally, principles like offering minimal options to reduce decision-making time (Hick’s law), using progress bars to show task completion progress (Goal Gradient hypothesis), and minimizing cognitive load through simple design can further optimize the user experience.


How to apply the endowment effect in user research

To apply the endowment effect in user research and UX design effectively, designers can leverage strategies that capitalize on users' tendency to value items more highly when they own them. Here are some key ways to apply the endowment effect:

  1. Offer Free Trials: Providing users with free trials for digital products like apps or subscriptions reduces the initial cost and risk associated with trying out a new product. Users are more likely to adopt a product when there is no initial risk involved. Moreover, the endowment effect suggests that users may find it challenging to give up a product they have become accustomed to during the trial period.

  2. Money-Back Guarantees: Implementing money-back guarantees allows users to try a product with the security of being able to reverse their decision within a specified period. However, due to the endowment effect, once users own the product, they are likely to value it more and be less inclined to take advantage of the money-back offer.

  3. Product Value: It's essential that the product holds perceived value for users from the outset for the endowment effect to be effective. If a product is not perceived as valuable or is of poor quality, users are unlikely to retain it despite the endowment effect.

By understanding and applying these principles, designers can create more engaging user experiences that tap into users' psychological tendencies, ultimately leading to increased adoption and retention of products.


How to measure the endowment effect in user research

To measure the endowment effect in user research, designers can employ various methods to understand how users value products they own compared to those they do not. Here are some strategies to measure the endowment effect:

  1. Experimental Tests: Conduct experiments similar to those carried out by researchers like Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch, and Richard Thaler. In these experiments, participants were asked to assign a value they would pay for an item (e.g., a mug) and then given the item. Subsequently, participants were asked if they wanted to trade the item for objects of equal value. The results showed that participants valued the item more when it was already in their possession.

  2. Market Research: Utilize market research techniques to assess how users perceive the value of products they own versus those they do not. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups can provide insights into users' attachment to products and how ownership influences their valuation.

  3. Behavioral Analysis: Analyze user behavior when interacting with products they own versus new products. Observing how users engage with owned items compared to unfamiliar ones can reveal patterns that indicate the presence of the endowment effect.

By employing these methods, designers can gain valuable insights into how users perceive and value products they own, helping them tailor UX design strategies to enhance user engagement and retention based on the endowment effect.


"Our possessions aren't just objects; they're stories waiting to be told."

How to mitigate the negative effects of the endowment effect in ux design

To mitigate the negative effects of the endowment effect in UX design, designers can implement strategies that help users overcome biases associated with ownership. Here are some ways to address the challenges posed by the endowment effect:

  1. Free Trials and Demos: Offering free trials or demos of products can help users experience the value of a product without the commitment of ownership. By allowing users to explore the product before making a purchase, designers can reduce the impact of the endowment effect on decision-making.

  2. User-Centered Design: Implementing user-centered design principles can help designers focus on meeting users' needs and preferences rather than solely relying on the endowment effect to drive user behavior. By prioritizing usability and user satisfaction, designers can create products that stand out based on merit rather than perceived ownership.

  3. Transparent Pricing and Value Proposition: Clearly communicating the value proposition of a product and its pricing structure can help users make informed decisions based on objective factors rather than emotional attachment due to ownership. Providing transparent information can counteract the bias introduced by the endowment effect.

By incorporating these strategies into UX design practices, designers can mitigate the negative impact of the endowment effect and create more user-centric experiences that prioritize usability, transparency, and value proposition over emotional biases related to ownership.


How to identify the endowment effect in user research

To identify the endowment effect in user research, designers can utilize various methods to understand how users value products they own compared to those they do not. Here are some strategies to identify the endowment effect:

  1. Experimental Tests: Conduct experiments where participants assign values to items they own and then offer them the opportunity to trade those items for similar ones they do not own. Observing how participants value owned items compared to non-owned items can reveal the presence of the endowment effect.

  2. Market Research: Employ techniques like surveys, interviews, and focus groups to gather insights into how users perceive and value products they own versus those they do not. Analyzing user responses and behaviors can help identify patterns indicating the influence of the endowment effect on decision-making.

  3. Behavioral Analysis: Analyze user behavior when interacting with products they own versus new products. By observing how users engage with owned items compared to unfamiliar ones, designers can detect signs of the endowment effect influencing user preferences and valuations.

By applying these methods in user research, designers can effectively identify the presence of the endowment effect and tailor UX design strategies to address biases related to ownership, ultimately leading to more user-centric and effective product designs.


"We don't buy things with money; we buy them with emotions."

Conclusion, the Endowment Effect stands as a powerful psychological force shaping human behavior, particularly in the realms of consumer decision-making and user experience. As individuals, we often find ourselves irrationally attached to the things we own, imbuing them with emotional value that transcends mere market worth. This phenomenon, coined by Richard Thaler, challenges traditional economic theories and underscores the intricate interplay between psychology and economics.

From status quo bias to loss aversion, the Endowment Effect intertwines with various cognitive biases, influencing our perceptions, decisions, and actions. In the marketing sphere, savvy marketers capitalize on this effect through strategies like free trials, transparent pricing, and virtual visualization to enhance product adoption and retention.

In the user research and UX design, understanding and mitigating the Endowment Effect's influence is crucial. By leveraging strategies such as offering free trials, employing user-centered design principles, and providing transparent pricing, designers can create more user-centric experiences that prioritize usability and value proposition over emotional biases related to ownership.

Ultimately, by recognizing the presence of the Endowment Effect and employing strategies to address its influence, designers can craft more engaging and effective user experiences, driving greater satisfaction and success in the marketplace.


Article by Mr.Tushar Deshmukh, CEO & Founder UXExpert, Dir. UXUITraining Lab Pvt. Ltd. other services - UXResearch, UXUIHiring, UXTalks, UXTools


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