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Fake frequent flyer points or just playing the game?

Qantas recently got some bad press from two Australian actors who were outraged that their frequent flyer points were wiped by the airline. The actors feel cheated out of their points but the airline insists that it is standard policy to remove points after 18 months of inactivity. There is some debate about if the actors got notified beforehand or not, you can read more in this Daily UK article here.

Notifications aside, this raises an interesting question about why people can react so badly about something as seemingly simple and superfluous as 'points'. We don't think of frequent flyer (FF) programs as games or gamification, but they are in fact using game mechanics to nudge behaviour in the real world.

FF programs nudge you to fly with the same airline, for longer distances, and more frequently. And in exchange you are rewarded with points, status like Bronze-Silver-Gold, extra privileges like priority check-ins and extra baggage, redeemable rewards and more... sound like gamification to us!

So FF programs are very much a gamified experience. But why the big deal about some 'fake' points anyway?

Well, it comes done to two things:

1) Fairness

Frequent flyer members have signed up to 'play the game' of earning points through flying behaviours. They have opted in to game and agreed to play by the rules. Loyalty program members (or 'players' if you will) diligently choose one airline over the other and they may also book travel and accommodation to earn extra points. Some airlines may cost more money but people will pay extra cash rather than miss out on points.

When it is not clear upfront to users that they could lose their points suddenly despite having faithfully played the FF game, it feels as if the game is unfair and rigged against us at the start (which, let's be honest, it probably is).

2) The endowment effect

Having dutifully flown with the same airline then, members rightly feel that they have earned the points and this is in fact the language used by many FF programs. In their minds, they now own those points. This triggers what behavioural scientists call 'the endowment effect', which means that we feel much more attachment to objects that we have made or put effort into than objects that we have not made. Incidentally, it also explains why we like that Ikea set of drawers so much even though it took 2 hours to build and you couldn't find where to put 3 of those screws (this is why the endowment effect is sometimes called the Ikea effect!).

So FF members feel a heightened sense of attachment to the points because they have earned them and taking them away triggers an innate sense of aversion to loss.

So while points may seem artificial and meaningless, they do in fact trigger our psychological and cognitive biases. And this example demonstrates just how powerful game mechanics are in engaging us and nudging our behaviour in every day life.

For those now worried that they could loose their hard-earned points, Qantas tips for keeping your points active can be found here.

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