4 Ways Credit Cards Manipulate You Into More Debt
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Credit cards are engineered to make sure you become a long-term, loyal, and indebted customer. Since many of the decisions that consumers make are not rational, card issuers work on those irrational impulses to make sure you spend money with their card without thinking logically about your actions.
Here are four methods that card issuers use to get you to sign up for their cards and keep you in debt. (See also: Which Type of Rewards Credit Card is Right for You?)
1. Appealing to Your Individuality and Creativity
Once upon a time, credit cards all came in the same boring colors. But sometime in the past 20 or so years, banks started allowing cardholders to express their individuality through their credit cards. Suddenly, you could show off anything from your adorable nephews to your commitment to the Humane Society with every purchase you made.
Part of what is going on here is something behavioral economists refer to as the IKEA effect. This effect causes individuals to value something more if they worked to create it. Not only does that mean you’re more likely to keep the inexpensive IKEA bookcase you put together with your own hands for years after you don’t need it anymore, it also means that you are going to overvalue the credit card whose cover image you chose.
In addition, your pleasure at seeing the chosen image will make you want to show it off — that is, use it more often.
2. Encouraging Instant Gratification
The very essence of credit — putting off payment — is something that appeals to a nearly universal cognitive bias called the present bias. (A cognitive bias is an error in logical thinking that is very difficult for an individual to recognize in himself.) Basically, this cognitive bias makes an individual value an immediate experience over future experiences.
The present bias is why it’s so easy to stay up late to watch the "Doctor Who" marathon even when you know you have to get up early the next day for an important meeting at work. Now is so much more important than later in our irrational minds, it can very difficult to make the responsible decision.
This, of course, is why it is so very easy to get into credit card debt and so difficult to dig out of it. Yes, your future self might need to work overtime every week to be able to make the payments on your credit card, but your now self really wants the big screen TV. Card issuers understand this quirk of human irrationality very well, and they do everything they can to appeal to our “I want it NOW!” tendencies.
3. Triggering Your Restraint Bias
Most people tend to overestimate their own impulse control; they believe that they will be able to show more restraint in the face of temptation than is realistic. This cognitive bias is why your grand plans to lose 20 pounds are often derailed by the first box of doughnuts you see. You have overestimated your ability to be virtuous in the face of temptation.
One way that credit cards use this cognitive bias is by offering to raise credit limits. While some consumers are capable of ignoring that temptation, there are others who will run up their balance to the new limit, even after they have convinced themselves that they can easily handle that much credit.
Another common strategy that triggers the restraint bias is the 0% balance transfer. In these cases, cardholders convince themselves that they can pay off the balance before the end of introductory period. However, many of those who take advantage of these offers are unable to show the restraint necessary to pay off their balance before the interest starts accruing.
4. Making You Fear a Loss of Perks
Many credit cards offer perks, from cash back to travel miles to money for college. The problem with these perks is that in many cases, cardholders are spending much more in interest than they are earning through the perks. Why would they do something so clearly irrational? Because of loss aversion.
Behavioral economists have discovered that human beings tend to irrationally overvalue something they already own or have. For example, plenty of investors have held onto tanking stocks for far too long because they are afraid of losing their original stake. They irrationally hope that the clearly dead investment will recover.
Loss aversion is also the reason why cable companies are happy to offer customers a free trial period of premium channels; viewers are much more likely to pay money to keep from losing something than they are to buy it in the first place.
And of course, loss aversion is a major reason banks offer credit card perks. While cardholders who pay off their balance each month are certainly making money on the perks, the majority of cardholders are not able to do that. If they were, banks would stop offering the perks because they would be the ones losing money.
For most consumers with perks credit cards, the fear of losing the airline miles will keep them charging on a card that they probably should have cut up long ago. They are afraid of losing that “free” flight, even though they are clearly paying for it.
Beware Your Irrational Brain
It can be difficult to responsibly use credit because our irrational brains and the manipulations of the credit industry are working against us. The best way to handle credit is to make sure you are conscious of your decisions and your irrational quirks before you whip out the plastic.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.