Psychology of the Countdown

Jun 22

My four year old is as busy, distracted, and rambunctious as any.  So I’m not totally surprised that calling her with, “Sam, time for dinner” doesn’t always spur immediate action.

But I mixed it up a bit recently. “You’ve got ten seconds to get to the table…10, 9, 8, 7…”

That actually worked.  I’m not sure she understood why, but those numbers ticking down to some unknown—and likely unfavorable—consequence made her move.

Suddenly I noticed the countdowns all around me.

– The television trailer promising “only four more episodes until the incredible season finale!”

– The blinking red hand in the crosswalk warning that cars will barrel through those white lines in a matter of seconds.

– The advertisement cautioning “the sale is over on Thursday and I just can’t afford to miss it.”

They’re everywhere, competing for attention, flashing and using words like “only” and “miss out” to warn about the penalties of inaction.

German movie director Fritz Lang is credited with the first use of a countdown when, in his 1929 science fiction thriller, Woman in the Moon (Die Frau im Mond),  he uses a ten-second sequence to increase the drama surrounding the story’s lunar rocket launch.  Even by today’s high-tech Hollywood standards, his depiction is pretty impressive.

Could Fritz have imagined that countdowns would become so prolific and so commercial?  Bored.com offers visitors the ability to create a web-based countdown clock for anything; a party, the removal of a cast, a vacation trip.  My personal favorite?  Someone’s countdown to kissing the most beautiful girl in the world. Nice.

At the core of social marketing is the imperative to provide solutions that improve and even save lives; to inform, raise awareness, educate, and act.  In this space, we have found that countdowns make excellent tools for moving people from unawareness and disinterest to preparedness and safer, more responsible behavior.

Consider hurricane preparedness, a perfect countdown issue.  Although the Atlantic Hurricane Season recently started on June 1st, many of the best preparedness steps should have started well before then; purchasing supplies, researching evacuation routes, making a family plan, obtaining or renewing flood insurance.   Some of those steps have very specific time requirements.  A flood insurance policy, for instance, requires a mandatory thirty-day waiting period so you can’t just purchase one when a storm is imminent. If you start looking into it June 1st, you’re already behind the curve.

As we encourage communities and individuals to prepare, we can step back from the start of hurricane season and use the psychology of the countdown to move people to action.  In support of the National Flood Insurance Program we put that very principal to work in 2009 by building a shareable online clock that counted down to the start of the hurricane season, offered important rotating flood safety messages, and drove people to a dedicated hurricane season landing page for more information on how to protect themselves with a policy.  It aligned the historical dangers of hurricanes with the reality of the approaching season and the urgency of appropriate actions.

How can you apply the benefits of a countdown—that sense of urgency and consequence—to other important social and emergency risk issues?  Smoking cessation?  Cancer awareness?  Safe driving?  Think about your own programs and determine where valid countdowns exist naturally and can be used to motivate audiences.

Hurry, I’m counting.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 at 9:08 am and is filed under Best Practices, Emergency + Risk Communication, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Psychology of the Countdown”

  1. Mike Russell says:

    Interesting article, Jim, and one that brings to the foreground issues of behavior I’d put in the background until reading it. In the media (and other industries I’ve either participated in or observed), I’ve seen countdowns (or devices derived from them) used effectively to motivate a response. I guess it’s that impending sense of loss that seems to make all the difference. Whatever it is, your article hits the nail on the head. Great job! -Mike