Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.

Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 3)

As the holiday season winds down, and marketers make their last cash grab of 2015, it’s time to talk about a self-control dilemma that is near and dear to my heart: impulse shopping. Black Friday is over, Cyber Monday has come and gone, but for some reason, there is no term for the deep discounts on holiday overstock that are currently flooding my email inbox. Perhaps that’s part of the point. By keeping marketing messages subtle, retailers can actually activate thoughts without your conscious awareness. You probably just got a bunch of crap you don’t need yesterday, so why are you thinking of buying more stuff today just because it’s 25% off? Knowing is half the battle, so in this installment of Psy Applied, I will be shedding some light onto the ways that marketers influence your purchasing goals.

  1. Priming- When someone is primed, it means that they have encountered a message that has affected their thoughts and behavior outside of conscious awareness.1 This is literally the entire point behind a lot of brand messaging. Much of the efficacy of these messages depends on you staying the dark. If you suddenly have a craving for Coca-Cola, you may not act on it if you realize that you’ve just been exposed to a Coca-Cola product placement on a television show. However, if you don’t notice the product placement, you are significantly more likely to choose the brand that you have just been exposed to. Research on priming has revealed some potent effects. In research about incidental brand exposure, researchers altered several pictures by placing a Dasani water bottle in the scene.2 The participants who didn’t notice the Dasani water in the pictures were significantly more likely to choose Dasani bottled water over another brand, but only after they had been exposed to the brand 12 times.2 While this may seem excessive, it actually mimics real life in many ways. We are bombarded with thousands of incidental brand messages each day, many of which involve repeat exposure to popular brands.3 Marketers use the fact that you can’t attend to all of these messages to their advantage, and they hope to bug you enough to be on your brain, but not enough so that you really know why. Notice the prime, fight the power.
  1. Persuasive appeals- Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has spent much of his career trying to uncover the strategies that people use to persuade others to behave in certain desired ways. Specifically, Cialdini uncovered 6 persuasion tactics that marketers use to make you buy in.4 The first strategy, reciprocation, depends on you feeling indebted for getting something for free, whether it’s a sample at the grocery store, or a five-dollar bill included with a marketing survey you got in the mail. Essentially, they make you feel like you owe them. The second strategy, and my personal favorite, is social proof. This is when marketers convince you that everyone else is doing it. In one study about hotel water conservation, guests were significantly more likely to reuse their towels when the appeal to do so included information that most of the other guests participated in the reuse program.5 This is basically marketing peer pressure. The third strategy, commitment, activates our desire to be consistent in our thoughts and behavior, and is often used for things like weight loss programs. If you tell everyone you are doing it, you have a desire to follow through so you don’t look bad. No one wants to be a flip-flopper. Strategy four, liking, is a common approach used by salespeople. We buy things from people we like, so marketers try harness this in several ways. They may hire a popular celebrity, a person that’s incredibly attractive, or they may try to target marketing towards specific people, increasing liking through the similarity between you and the spokesperson. The fifth strategy, authority, involves convincing people that you have expert knowledge. Marketers may use doctors to sell weight loss drugs or chefs to sell cookware. Their goal is to convince you that people in the know prefer their products. Finally, the sixth strategy, scarcity, tries to convince people that their opportunity to buy is limited. This may be through special edition or seasonal products, or through limited release collector’s editions, for example. The name of the game is to make you feel like you will miss out if you don’t act now. These 6 strategies are incredibly effective, and they’ve been selling you stuff since you were born.

It’s not surprising that advertising appeals affect the things that we purchase. Why else would companies dump billions of dollars into marketing? We often like to think that we are above being influenced, but Cialdini has demonstrated just how easy it is to persuade someone, while others have shed light onto how this may affect your behavior completely outside of conscious awareness. As we enter 2016 with our holiday bills burning a hole in our mailboxes, remember this: A savvy consumer is a suspicious consumer.

 

  1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 464.
  1. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.
  1. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  1. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence. A. Michel.
  1. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

 

 

 

 

Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 2)

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Image from someecards.com

It’s the 25th and Thanksgiving is tomorrow. From experience, I know the gateway holiday, as I lovingly call it, can sink a diet faster than a German U-Boat. You think you’re being healthy, eating candied yams and green beans covered in cream soup, but really you might as well open a pint of Ben and Jerry’s because you’re OD’ing on sugar just the same. Now, I’m not here to lessen your enjoyment of the holiday. I, too, will be stuffing my face with stuffing tomorrow. But there are some tips and tricks we can glean from social psych research to help us survive the holidays without elastic waistbands. Today, we are going to discuss the wisdom, and the wonder, of counteractive self-control.

Counteractive self-control is a self-control strategy where people use a temptation to remind them of the goal they are supposed to be pursuing, thus counteracting the temptation and causing them to act in a goal-consistent way.1 If you ever posted a picture of yourself looking fire in a bikini on the refrigerator to remind you of your diet when you want to eat, congratulations, because you are already a counteractive self-control master. There are two kinds of counteractive control: explicit and implicit. Explicit counteractive self-control comes online purposefully, when people feel the need to bolster the value of their goals in order to overcome the relative allure of the temptation. Implicit counteractive self-control, however, happens without conscious intent. People who are skilled self-regulators tend to automatically increase the value of their goals when they are confronted with temptations to ensure that they are not distracted from their pursuits.2,3 Good for those people. The rest of us want pumpkin pie.

So, it’s lucky for us that we too can engage in counteractive self-control, albeit with more deliberate intention. The first step to counteractive control is to recognize that a self-control dilemma exists in the first place.4 A self-control dilemma is a situation in which you want to practice self-control in order to work towards a goal, but you are tempted to act in a goal-inconsistent way by some short-term desire that can be satisfied now.5 Once you realize that your goal commitment is threatened, you must take action by engaging in counteractive self-control in one of three ways: 1) Bolster the value of the goal, 2) Offer yourself a delayed reward, or, 3) Self-impose a penalty.6 You can also precommit to indulge later if your problem is that you don’t enjoy yourself enough on the holidays, but then why are you reading this post you paragon of regulatory success?7

1) Bolster your goal- This is the idea behind implicit counteractive self-control. People automatically enhance the value of their goal when they are tempted to abandon it.8 However, you can also explicitly bolster the value of your goal. Goals that are important and cognitively accessible are more likely to appear valuable, and to trigger cognitive biasing toward your goal.9 Mental contrasting procedures can help people to elaborate on their goals, increasing commitment and specificity, thus increasing the accessibility.10 However, goals must be important and temptations must be strong in order for counteractive self-control to come online at all, so don’t expect this to work for that half-assed dieting goal you formed on Monday and barely considered before being confronted with all of your favorite foods.11

2) Offer yourself a delayed reward- This is a popular strategy with moms and cigarette smokers: Do something now and you can have something later. In order to capitalize on the efficacy of the reward, people tend to offer themselves bigger rewards as self-control dilemmas become more difficult for them.12 So, for a self-control dilemma that is relatively easy to overcome, you may reward yourself with the new Adele album, while a relatively difficult dilemma may prompt a bigger, more desirable reward, like a vacation. By delaying the reward, you make the reward contingent on some goal-relevant action you will perform.12 In turn, this makes the goal-relevant action important, because it will lead to the coveted reward.12

3) Self-imposing a penalty- This is an incredibly effective, but less popular, strategy. Instead of rewarding yourself for good behavior, people who use penalties punish themselves for bad behavior. In cases of self-imposed penalties, people may precommit to losing certain privileges, or to having to perform specific unpleasant actions, if they fail to accomplish an important goal. For instance, you may decide that failing to stick to your monthly budget should be penalized with a monetary donation to a charity for a cause you hate. The desire to avoid the unpleasant penalty increases the value of the goal-relevant action, as this is the path to avoidance.13

While implicit counteractive self-control seems like a cruel cosmic joke, bestowed on those of us who are already killing it, explicit self-control can work for everyone, no matter how good a self-regulator they are. With all of the tempting foods we encounter as the year winds down, we must remind ourselves of our goals now, instead of waiting to commit to act on them until next year. But, it is also important to avoid overcontrol. The holidays are a time to enjoy ourselves, and each other, so make sure to balance your diet and your joy this season! Happy Turkey Day y’all!

  1. Trope, Y., & Fishbach, A. (2000). Counteractive self-control in overcoming temptation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(4), 493.
  2. Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003,
  3. Fishbach, A., & Shah, J. Y. (2006). Self-control in action: implicit dispositions toward goals and away from temptations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(5), 820.
  4. Myrseth, K. O. R., & Fishbach, A. (2009). Self-control a function of knowing when and how to exercise restraint. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(4), 247-252.
  5. Kroese, F. M., Evers, C., & De Ridder, D. T. (2009). How chocolate keeps you slim. The effect of food temptations on weight watching goal importance, intentions, and eating behavior. Appetite, 53(3), 430-433.
  6. Fishbach, A., & Trope, Y. (2005). The substitutability of external control and self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(3), 256-270.
  7. Kivetz, R., & Simonson, I. (2002). Self-control for the righteous: Toward a theory of precommitment to indulgence. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 199-217.
  8. Fishbach, A., Zhang, Y., & Trope, Y. (2010). Counteractive evaluation: Asymmetric shifts in the implicit value of conflicting motivations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 29-38.
  9. Fishbach, A., & Trope, Y. (2007). Implicit and explicit mechanisms of counteractive self-control. Handbook of motivation science, 281-294.
  10. Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31(1), 17-26.
  11. Fishbach, A., & Converse, B. A. (2010). Walking the line between goals and temptations: Asymmetric effects of counteractive control. Self control in society, mind, and brain, 389-407.
  12. Trope, Y., & Fishbach, A. (2005). Going Beyond the Motivation Given: Self-Control and Situational Control 0ver Behavior. Psychology, 7(3), 417-458.
  13. Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.

 

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 9

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Image from Venture Beat

It may not be surprising, given yesterday’s topic, that brand loyalty is related to brand relationships. Brand loyalty is exactly what it sounds like; it is forming a long-term and largely exclusive relationship with a brand. Companies love brand loyalists because most of a company’s sales tend to come from a small portion of their customers. This is something known as the Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule), where 80% of revenue is generated by only 20% of customers.1 Because repeat customers are so vital to the success of a business, marketers continually try to build and maintain this kind of loyalty.

You can see how loyalty may be involved in many of the topics we’ve discussed. Brand loyalists are more likely to engage in brand communities, they’re less likely to be influenced by the choices of others in product categories in which they are brand loyal and they tend to generate word of mouth about those brands. Some researchers contend that brand loyalty is part and parcel of brand relationships, and it certainly appears to impact many aspects of a consumer’s marketplace experience.2 In fact, there are many parallels between brand loyalty and the concept of loyalty between two people. For instance, people need to trust brands before they can develop brand loyalty.3 We also come to trust brands by getting to know them over time, often through their brand characteristics and corporate behavior. But other factors like brand performance can also contribute to brand loyalty, which can be positive or negative.4 If a product always performs well, there is little reason for a loyal customer to seek other services, while the opposite is true if it performs inconsistently.4

One of the ways that marketers attempt to harness the power of brand loyalty is through loyalty programs. Loyalty programs are rather infamous for costing companies a lot of money for little return. And this makes some logical sense, as customers that are already purchasing a lot may have no need to purchase more often, or the program itself may not be motivating sales. Research has found that successful loyalty programs generally have 3 main characteristics: 1) They relate to high involvement products, 2) They increase the value of the service, and 3) They maximize motivation for the next purchase.5 Companies whose loyalty programs don’t reflect these values are far less successful than those whose programs are more motivating for the customer.

Brand relationships, and the loyalty that may exist within these relationships, are a part of our lives as consumers. When we become brand loyal, we may be champions for a product, building a company’s customer base by spreading the word to friends and family. We may even feel like amateur guerilla marketers. But we should always be aware that loyalty programs are not rewards for consumers, they’re marketing tactics for companies.

  1. Koch, R. (2011). The 80/20 principle: the secret to achieving more with less. Random House LLC.
  2. Fournier, S., & Yao, J. L. (1997). Reviving brand loyalty: a reconceptualization within the framework of consumer-brand relationships. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 14(5), 451-472.
  3. Lau, G. T., & Lee, S. H. (1999). Consumers’ trust in a brand and the link to brand loyalty. Journal of Market-Focused Management, 4(4), 341-370.
  4. Chaudhuri, A., & Holbrook, M. B. (2001). The chain of effects from brand trust and brand affect to brand performance: the role of brand loyalty. Journal of Marketing, 65(2), 81-93.
  5. Dowling, G. R., & Uncles, M. (1997). Do customer loyalty programs really work?. Research Brief, 1.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 6

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Image from Lisa Larter

It’s day 6 in our crash course of consumer psychology, and we’ve gotten into a lot of great work on social influence and contagion. Until now, we’ve ignored some inherently social marketplace phenomena: word of mouth advertising and customer reviews. These days, customer reviews and review sites like Yelp help consumers make purchasing decisions, or select products and services better suited to their needs. Customer reviews are supported by the concept of word of mouth, or hearing about something from someone else.

Word of mouth is powerful for several reasons. We know from social psychology that other people are often swayed by expertise or experience, and people writing product or service reviews have generally used the product or service.1 We are also persuaded more often by those familiar to us than by unfamiliar people, something researchers have dubbed “tie strength.”2 But as we’ve reviewed in past articles, complete strangers’ product choices can influence us also, so word of mouth can come from a large range of sources. And, boy, is it influential!

Research has shown that this product feedback we receive from others has both short and long-term consequences, with word of mouth affecting future decisions, as well as those made in the moment.3 In fact, researchers have found that word of mouth advertising has longer carryover effects and higher response elasticities than traditional marketing efforts.4 Basically, this means that word of mouth is more influential over time, and yields more customers per effort, than traditional marketing. As you can see, word of mouth is very desirable for businesses, and it works better on us as consumers.

Customer reviews of products or services are one expression of this type of word of mouth feedback. While browsing merchandise, you can get educated opinions and specifics about the product, as well as warnings or issues with service. Unsurprisingly, these reviews often play a role in our product decisions. For instance, book sales on Amazon and Barnes and Noble online bookstores are directly related to both the number and type of positive reviews left by other customers.5 In another study, researchers found that participants were about 20% more likely to choose recommended products than non-recommended products.6 But, luckily for companies, brand loyalty moderates the effect of product reviews, such that consumers are less likely to be swayed by reviews when they already like a brand or product.7

It’s been a wonderful journey through social influence within the consumer realm. Tomorrow, we’re turning to conceptualizations of brands as people. So, obviously, you won’t want to miss that 😉

  1. Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Goldman, R. (1981). Personal involvement as a determinant of argument-based persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 847.
  2. Bansal, H. S., & Voyer, P. A. (2000). Word-of-mouth processes within a services purchase decision context. Journal of Service Research, 3(2), 166-177.
  3. Bone, P. F. (1995). Word-of-mouth effects on short-term and long-term product judgments. Journal of Business Research, 32(3), 213-223.
  4. Trusov, M., Bucklin, R. E., & Pauwels, K. (2009). Effects of word-of-mouth versus traditional marketing: findings from an internet social networking site. Journal of Marketing, 73(5), 90-102.
  5. Chevalier, J. A., & Mayzlin, D. (2006). The effect of word of mouth on sales: Online book reviews. Journal of Marketing Research, 43(3), 345-354.
  6. Senecal, S., & Nantel, J. (2004). The influence of online product recommendations on consumers’ online choices. Journal of Retailing, 80(2), 159-169.
  7. Ahluwalia, R., Burnkrant, R. E., & Unnava, H. R. (2000). Consumer response to negative publicity: the moderating role of commitment. Journal of Marketing Research, 37(2), 203-214.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 5

It’s the season of love, laughter and seeing everyone you’ve ever met, so let’s talk about social norms. Norms refer to what is “normal,” or what is commonly done or preferred by others. Norms are always at work during our shopping experiences, from the way the sales associate treats you in a friendly way, to the way that you behave while browsing merchandise. And, they’re also at work when we interact with one another in the marketplace, from allowing someone with one item to pass you in line, to helping a child get something off of a high shelf. Basically, there are two kinds of norms: injunctive and descriptive. Injunctive norms refer to what ought to be done, or what is most highly approved by other people.1 These are things like giving to charity or volunteering time. Descriptive norms, however, are essentially descriptions of what others are doing in a given situation.1 These are things like, “75% of people give to the Red Cross following a natural disaster.” Norms are incredibly powerful, and they regulate our behavior in many ways. The consumer domain is no different.

Do you ever wonder why you tip in restaurants even though you don’t want to? It’s because of social norms. Tipping in restaurants nets $26 billion a year in the United States, but it’s not from the goodness of people’s hearts.2 It’s because they don’t want to look cheap in front of their friends, or because everyone else does it.2 This helps to explain why tipping is common in the US, but not in other countries. In the US, it is a social norm, and in other countries it isn’t.*

What other people are doing affects our behavior in the marketplace in other ways, as well. For instance, people are more likely to impulse buy when the practice is seen as normative within their community.3 So, essentially, bad behavior flies if other people are doing it. But marketers can harness the power of these same social norms to reach desired outcomes. In a famous study about hotel water conservation, a group of researchers found that adding a descriptive norm about how often other hotel guests reuse their towels to a statement about water conservation increased participation in the towel reuse program by almost 10%.4

So, to answer the age-old question, would you jump off a bridge if everyone else was doing it? Science suggests you very well might. So, protect yourself this holiday season and march to the beat of your own drummer!

* This is NOT advice to stop tipping. Always tip your waitstaff! As we just discussed, it’s expected in the US and counted as part of a server’s salary.

  1. Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015.
  2. Azar, O. H. (2004). What sustains social norms and how they evolve?: The case of tipping. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 54(1), 49-64.
  3. Rook, D. W., & Fisher, R. J. (1995). Normative influences on impulsive buying behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 305-313.
  4. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 2

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Image from New York Times

Yesterday, we discussed how product contagion works. But other people can also change our impressions about products. These people can be celebrities used to promote a product by associating themselves with it, or they can be other consumers in the marketplace or salespeople you encounter. As always, our impressions as consumers are shaped by those around us.

In a particularly interesting line of research, experimenters found that people are far less likely to purchase products that other people have touched.1 In their study, participants were asked to find a salesperson in the university bookstore and purchase a particular shirt.1 The salesperson was a confederate (another experimenter posing as a civilian) who told participants one of 3 things: Another customer was currently trying on the only shirt, that the shirt was on the return rack outside of the dressing room or that the shirt was on a display in the store like all of the other merchandise.1 Results indicated that people who knew another person had just tried on the shirt were the least likely to buy the shirt, had the least positive evaluations of the shirt and had significantly higher feelings of disgust for the shirt.1 People who saw the shirt on the rack had more positive evaluations and were more likely to purchase the shirt.1 As with product contagion, the other person “rubbed off” on the product itself, altering participants’ evaluations. This same group of researchers found a caveat to this finding: people have slightly higher product evaluations if the person who touched the product was attractive.2

Other people can also affect shopping experiences through what one researcher dubbed “accidental interpersonal touching” incidents.3 This researcher found that shoppers who were accidentally touched by another customer while they were looking at a product had significantly more negative brand evaluations than participants who were not touched while evaluating the same product.3 The holiday season is certainly famous for this, so let’s all do the economy a favor and keep our hands and bodies to ourselves.

We can also “catch” positive moods from others, which increases positive product attitudes.4 This may be why people are swayed to buy clothing items when salespeople or other customers tell them how wonderful they look in it. However, the person you’re interacting with has to be liked, or the effect can actually backfire and decrease product evaluations.4

The mall is a veritable field experiment in consumer psychology, so stay on your toes and do the beleaguered sales associates and your fellow consumers a favor and stop touching everything.

  1. Argo, J. J., Dahl, D. W., & Morales, A. C. (2006). Consumer contamination: How consumers react to products touched by others. Journal of Marketing, 70(2), 81-94.
  2. Argo, J. J., Dahl, D. W., & Morales, A. C. (2008). Positive consumer contagion: responses to attractive others in a retail context. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 690-701.
  3. Martin, B. A. (2012). A stranger’s touch: effects of accidental interpersonal touch on consumer evaluations and shopping time. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(1), 174-184.
  4. Howard, D. J., & Gengler, C. (2001). Emotional contagion effects on product attitudes. Journal of Consumer Research, 28(2), 189-201.