Humans like being in control. Early installers of domestic heat pumps found this out the hard way. Their customers were frustrated that the old things they used to do to make the house warmer – turn on the boiler, press a button, twiddle the thermostat – weren’t working as quickly as their old gas boilers. The initial response from the manufacturers was to remove control entirely – just let it run on the timer, don’t worry about turning it on or off or pressing anything.

That was a big mistake. Without a dial to press inside the house the installers found that customers were going to extreme methods to exert control over their heating – with one customer going outside their home to manually connect and disconnect the heat pump when they wanted it a bit warmer.

Good for the environment though heat pumps may be, this kind of behaviour was clearly unsustainable. So an ingenious solution was found: the heat boost button. This was a new button (inside the house, thankfully) that gave the heat pump owner an enormous sense of wellbeing – when they pressed it a light came on and a fan whirred. It didn’t affect the heat pump at all, but customers with the heat boost button reported a sizeable uplift in their satisfaction with their heat pump. It gave them the illusion of control.

Credit goes to Adam Bell of Stonehaven for the anecdote above – which you can read a bit more about here. He’s concerned with the difficulties this story presents for decarbonisation. What strikes me about it is what it tells us about the consumer demand for control and autonomy.


Control and autonomy


Control is something we measure very closely. Every month we ask a representative sample of UK adults (as part of our Optimism Index barometer) how much freedom of choice and control they feel they have over the way their life turns out. We interpret this as a eudemonic measure of wellbeing, allowing us to understand how much autonomy people feel they have. As with many wellbeing measures, the data is quite stable – but there are notable trends over recent years.

Autonomy has really suffered over the past 18 months as financial stress has left people worrying more than usual about keeping their heads above water. It also suffered in late 2020 as we slid inexorably into more restrictions, with people confused by the tiers system and unsure what to expect from the future.

This was in sharp contrast to the first lockdown, in spring 2020, when autonomy rose – with less going on, people felt more in control. There are big differences by cohort too. Men generally feel more in control than women, people who own property feel much more in control then people who rent. There are vast differences by income (unsurprisingly, people who earn more have higher autonomy) and older generations feel more in control than younger.


Organisational Control


There are big implications for organisations here too. Businesses should look to put their customer in control – but too much can be overwhelming. The famous jam experiment warns against choice overload. That’s sensible – if often makes sense to limit, or at least curate, the choices you’re letting the customer make. But there’s a bigger question about when it is right for organisations to surrender control and let the customer make the choice. And they apply not just to product offerings but other interactions too.

One example comes from O2. In December 2018 the O2 network across the UK suffered a massive, lengthy outage. By way of apology, in the weeks that followed O2 set up a goodwill fund of £1m. But rather than just say how that was going to be spent, they gave affected customers a choice – do you want to be compensated for your inconvenience with a bit of airtime credit or would you like to donate your share to charity?

A third of people chose to donate their share to charity. The rest got a free 90p of airtime credit on their account. One conclusion from this episode is that people are (un)surprisingly selfish. The other is that in giving people a choice – by putting them in control of the situation – it ensured everyone got what they wanted. A third of people got to feel good about a charitable donation (and one of them even got a consumer trend case study out of it) and the rest got their reward for the outage.

Control is an undervalued consumer demand. Organisations need to carefully calibrate how much control they are giving their customers, when it’s appropriate to dial that up or down, and when they need to just install a big red button.  

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