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Build commitment and leverage or increase people's sense of ownership and attachment to outcomes, products, and experiences

"Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

~ Dale Carniege


Here’s a mug. How much would you pay for it?

Okay, let’s flip it around. If this mug was your mug,  how much would you be willing to sell it for? What if it was a gift from a good friend? What if you’d been using it every single morning since you were a kid? 

If your price changes between buying and selling, don’t be surprised.

Research has shown us that owning something tends to increase our perceived value of it compared to when we don’t own it. 

One classic study actually used mugs to test this theory. In 1990, Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler ran experiments where some subjects were randomly given (or endowed) coffee mugs and some were not. They then created a market where those without a mug were given the opportunity to list a buying price for a mug, and those with a mug were given the opportunity to list a selling price for their mug. They found that the median selling price from those with the mugs was more than double the median buying price. 

The mug in both scenarios is identical. They both hold the same amount of water and look and feel the same.

So why might we value one over the other? Well there’s more to the way we value things beyond their functional use. Value is defined by the importance, worth, or usefulness of a product or object. 

In that sense you would think that the value of something would remain the same – like a mug. But as soon as you introduce a sense of ownership it can change things. 

This result can be explained by the endowment effect, where people tend to value an owned object higher. Ownership (as well as loss aversion) are two primary reasons that lead to this change in perceived value. 

Value and ownership have been researched extensively. Pierce, Kostova and Dirks (2003), suggest that feelings of ownership can be induced by controlling an object (e.g., through possession), becoming familiar with the object (e.g., through actual or imagined use) and/or investing one’s self into the object (e.g., through identification). This means that ownership can be both real or perceived.

Make it Yours does not only refer to our possessions.

We have all heard stories of how people are often unwilling to intervene when they see a crime committed in broad daylight. Why would people put themselves at risk to assist a complete stranger?

Well, in 1972 the psychologist Thomas Moriarty conducted a study to  see if he could use a simple psychological weapon to persuade people  to put themselves at risk of personal harm for a person they had never met before. The research involved the staging of a number of thefts on a New York City beach.

For the experiment a researcher would place a beach blanket within 5 feet of a randomly selected individual. After about two minutes on the blanket relaxing and listening to a portable radio the person would stand up and leave the blanket to walk down the beach.  Within a few minutes a second researcher would walk by and grab the portable radio before trying to make a get-away.

In the control (i.e. no intervention was made) only four people out of twenty tried to prevent the theft. However, the number of people who were prepared to challenge the thief increased dramatically when the researcher asked the individual next to them to please “watch my things” before walking away. In this scenario nineteen out of twenty people challenged the thief.

The experiment confirms that people have a strong desire to appear consistent with commitments they have previously made, especially if the commitment has been been publicly.

Consistency is one of the seven principles of influence outlined by father of persuasion Robert Cialdini in his 1984 seminal book about persuasion.

In Cialdini's words: “we all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided”, 

We don't have a sense ownership of our possessions only. We feel we own our decisions, ideas, actions and decisions, and achievements.

There are countless ways of leveraging it to create better products and experiences as well as more effective behaviour change interventions.

Let’s dive into a few techniques that do just that.

Foot-in-the-Door (FITD)

Start with a modest request then follow up later with a larger request, you increase your chances of succeeding with the larger request.

Let’s say you want to persuade homeowners to display a billboard in their front garden advising people to drive carefully. You could go around a neighbourhood and ask them to do so, or, you might first ask homeowners a small request that most people would agree on. This is exactly what Freedman and Fraser have done in a 1966 experiment. 

In the first scenario they only managed to persuade 17% of homeowners to do so, while the second time around, the researchers changed one thing which led to 76% of homeowners agreeing to display the billboard. They first asked homeowners a few weeks earlier to display a small “Be a Safe Driver” sign in the window of their car or house.

By committing to this small request first, the homeowners established themselves as a citizen that was committed to the cause, it became part of their self-image. These homeowners were then more likely to display the billboard at a later date, as this larger request was consistent with their self-image.  

FITD is also commonly used in product design, especially when crafting onboarding flows. Before asking the users for a big favour (become a paid member), you could first ask them for a small request (register for free with one click), a favour so small, they’ll almost surely do it.

Research has shown that it effective in health, pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour change interventions. For example, a recent field experiment found that this technique could reduce drivers' aggressiveness.

Behavioural Contract

Another technique to encourage people commit to behaviour change involves formally agreeing to do or not do something, either indefinitely or for a specific period of time. When applied by health professionals this is generally in the form of "signing" an agreement (e.g., specifying that they will not drink alcohol for one week).

When designing products, it is common to change the copy from simple "OK" to words such as "I'm in", "I Agree", or "I commit".

However, research indicates that the greater the effort we put into a commitment, the more effective it is at influencing our attitudes and behaviour.

How can we create the perception of effort in the digital space?

A great example is the award-winning daily planner and self-care habit tracking app Fabolous, which asks users to pre-commit to their goals by pressing and holding on a button that symbolises a personal contract.   

Behavioural Contract, Fabolous app

Commitment Device

"The Odyssey" tells the legend of the Greek hero Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War. And if you've read it, you probably remember the part where Odysseus has to get past the sirens.

The Odyssey

He realises that once he hears the siren song, he's going to try to steer the ship into the rocks. And he's going to die. And because he can anticipate that he's going to regret it, he decides to bind himself so that when temptation comes, he won't be able to do something regrettable. And so he ties himself to the mast, and his crew has wax in their ears so they can't hear the siren song.

[Commitment devices] are decisions you make with a ’cool head’ [right now] to bind yourself so that you don’t do something regrettable when you have a ‘hot head’ [in the future].” — Daniel Goldstein

Commitment Devices have been shown to be effective behaviour change technique for a range of settings, from promoting gym-going to increasing quit rates among smokers by 40% and boosting rates for medical adherence.

As suggested by behavioural strategist Samuel Salzer, Commitment Devices can be classified into  three kinds.

Social‍‍: Commitment device that adds social cost of not acting in line with long-term goal (social accountability)

Example: Schedule workouts with an exercise partner.

Friction: Commitment device that adds hassle cost of not acting in line with long-term goal.

Example: Purchase smaller sized lunch boxes (hassle costs makes it less likely we overeat)

Aversive: Commitment device that adds financial cost of not acting in line with long-term goal.

Example: Sign-up for fruit and vegetable subscription (financial costs to skip and reduced friction for eating healthy)

🚀 Click here for a database compiled by Samuel Salzer.

An example of a behaviour change app that leverage both behavioural contracts and (aversive) commitment decides is Stickk.


The examples above illustrate that having a sense of ownership does not simply refer to our irrational judgement when it comes to placing a value on things we possess.

It has important implications for the way we build products, organisations and behaviour changes interventions.

Digital products with high retention rates (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook, Duolingo) design user interactions that store value over time. Executives from some of the most successful companies reported that they want their employees to think and act like owners.

And behaviour change apps can ask us to implicitly or explicitly commit to achieve our goals.

Massimo's Note: Zac Fitz-Walter, Product Manager & Gamification Designer, PhD, contributed to this article.

Related Tactics


Start with a small request to increase likelihood of compliance with larger requests.

Product designers can design user onboarding flows by placing small requests first, and then follow up with larger requests (e.g., become a Premium member).


Behavioural Contract

Encourage a personal agreement of performing the behaviour.

The daily planner and self-care habit tracking app Fabolous asks users to pre-commit to their goals by pressing and holding on a button that symbolises a personal contract.


Commitment Device

Enable users to commit to do or refrain from doing a certain behaviour by introducing friction, social accountability or the prospect of a financial loss.

The app Stickk asks users to commit with real money to stick to their goals.


Further Readings

Consumer control and customization in online environments

Journal of Marketing Communications | Laura F. Brighta and Terry Daughertyb

The Principle of Commitment and Behavioral Consistency

NN Group | Therese Fessenden

The “IKEA Effect”: When Labor Leads to Love

Harvard Business Review | Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, Dan Ariely

Commitment and Behavior Change: Evidence from the Field

Journal of Consumer Research | Katie Baca-Motes et al.


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