Why Credit Cards Are Getting Heavier

Most credit cards are plastic and flimsy.

And that makes sense, right? Credit cards are merely symbolic, so why add bells and whistles?

Well, that’s what I believed until I touched the Capital One Venture card. The card doesn’t have the typical feel. It’s metal. And it’s pretty friggen heavy.

That’s when it hit me: this design was a clever ploy by marketers.

Based on cognitive psychology, a heavier credit card would influence people to spend more money.

This post explains why.

Why Does Weight Matter?

Let’s call it the heavy-card effect. The underlying principle stems from embodied cognition.

Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh (2010) found that job applicants perform better when their résumé is attached to a heavy clipboard. We associate greater weight with greater importance, so the heaviness implies that more information is metaphorically packed into the résumé. That’s why important things “carry more weight.”

Resume attached to clipboard

That study attributed weight with importance. However, we also associate weight with size—if something is heavier, we believe that it contains more volume. That’s also why prices seem higher when they’re displayed in a larger font size (e.g, Coulter & Coulter, 2005).

Therefore, albeit metaphorical, heavier credit cards convey a subtle cue that more funds are available.

With more funds (seemingly) available, we feel justified in spending more money.

Real-World Example

Suppose that you’re buying a laptop.

As you pull out your credit card to pay for it, the clerk offers some upgrades (e.g., extended warranty).

With card in hand, you analyze the pros and cons. And you consciously—or nonconsciously—consider the pain of paying (see my pricing guide).

You’re already desensitized to some extent. Credit cards reduce the saliency of a payment (so they’re less painful than cash).

Plus, you’re further desensitized because of the heavy-card effect. When contemplating the purchase, the heaviness of your credit card becomes a nonconscious cue that you have more funds available to spend. Your bank account literally seems bigger. In turn, you feel less pain with the purchase, and you’re more likely to move forward with the upgrades.

What Are the Implications?

It’s a cool phenomenon, but we reach a dilemma:

  • As a psychology nerd, I admire the creative application
  • As a human being, I also see the moral questionability

At the moment, this effect is pure speculation. Would it increase actual spending? It might. But it might not. We need some empirical research.

If the heavy-card effect DOES influence spending, then some policy changes might be useful. We could create universal sizes and weights for credit cards. That way, we’re not influencing people to spend more money than they should be spending

If any researcher wants to collect some data, I’d love to hear the results.