100 Things You Should Know About People: #47 — People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of Them

Lays potato chip bag

You go online to re-order a box of your favorite pens. Will you value the product more if the product page has a picture of the pens versus just a text description? Would you think the pens are worth more if you were in the office store and the pen was right in front of you? Does it matter if you are buying pens or food or any other product? In other words, does the way the item is displayed at the time of decision affect the dollar value that people put on them? Bushong and a team of researchers decided to test this out. The answers they came up with might surprise you. I know they surprised me.

How much would you pay for the chips? — In the first set of experiments they used snack food (potato chips, candy bars). Participants were given money they could spend. They had lots of choices, so they got to pick what they wanted to buy (by the way, they screened out people on a diet, people with eating disorders etc). The participants could read the name/brief description of the item (Lays Potato Chips in a 1.5 oz bag) or see a picture of the item, or have the real item right in front of them. Here’s a chart of the results:

Chart of experiment 1 results

The real deal counts – Having a picture didn’t increase the amount of money people were willing to “bid” for the product, but having the product right in front of them definitely did by up to 60%. Interestingly, the form of presentation didn’t change how much people said they liked the item, just the dollar value. In fact, for some items that they had said before the experiment they didn’t like, they still valued those more highly if they were in front of them.

What about toys and trinkets instead of food? — The researchers were surprised. They thought the images would be more powerful than text. They decided to try the experiment again, each time varying some conditions. For example, they tried the experiment with toys and trinkets instead of food. Same result.

What about behind plexiglass? – They wondered if with the food there was some unconscious olfactory (smell) cues that were triggering the brain, so they did another experiment putting the food in view, but behind plexiglass. If the food was in view, but behind plexiglass it was deemed to be worth a little more money, but not the same as if it were available within reach. Ah! they thought it is olfactory!, but then they found the same result with the non food items.

Chart 2 from experiment

Ok, so we’ll give samples – Deciding to try one more thing, they went back to food items, but this time let people see and taste a sample. The actual item wasn’t there, but the sample was. Surely, they thought, the sample will be the same as having the actual item in front of them. Wrong again!

Chart 3 from experiment


The researchers note that in this taste condition the participants didn’t even look at the samples in the paper cup, since they knew they were the same as the food in the package.

A Pavlovian response? — The researchers hypothesize that there is a physical Pavlovian response going on: When the product is actually available, that acts as a conditioned stimulus and elicits a response.  The images and even text could become a conditioned stimulus and produce the same response, but they have not been set up in the brain to trigger the same response as the actual item.

As you start to think of the implications, here are some things to consider:

a) People were not going online and deciding whether or not to buy an item they were unfamiliar with. They were not at an apparel website deciding whether this was the right shirt or not. In those cases showing an image might have a huge impact. In these experiments the participants were all familiar already with the products.

b) Having the product physically available and not behind a barrier or plexiglass cover seems to be very important.

c) Sounds like those brick and mortar stores have an edge, at least on price.

Let me know your thoughts on the implications of the experiments.

And for those of you who like to read the research:

B. Bushong, L.M. King, C.F. Camerer, A. Rangel, Pavlovian processes in consumer choice: The physical presence of a good increases willingness-to-pay. American Economic Review, 2010, 100:1-18.

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Posted in decision-making, psychology, research
16 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #47 — People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of Them
  1. Paolo says:

    Very interesting, I would like to know if you have any research about Casino or slot machine.
    Thank you
    Paolo

  2. Very interesting! How would a picture measure against a video with a person presenting or using the product?

  3. Linda W says:

    Interesting. I guess it will be a long time before shopping online replaces shopping in stores.

  4. Hi Susan,

    Loved this article, and the idea of ‘100 things’ – will definitely get the book when it’s out.

    My take on the findings relate to what I’ve always thought about the power of packaging, which is that it sets up a far richer ‘story’ than the product alone; and it is this story which contains most of the value.

    Therefore it’s no surprise that the ‘taste’ option fails to get close to the real thing. The picture also loses out because it’s effectively low res, with the elements communicated by materials and tactility lost from the story. The plexiglass experiment falls someway in between, so I think it’s also a low res issue, much as frozen food always suffers from its location in freezers.

    So the answer is that there are definitely unconscious triggers in play, but not olfactory (though these would enhance the effect still further if they were present). It’s the power of the story in HD and 3D.

  5. NYM says:

    I found your blog through a Copyblogger mention and owe you both my thanks!
    I found this research fascinating, but it didn’t surprise me. Years of working trade shows and promotional events have taught me that engaging the customer is half the sale. The same things that make online shopping convenient – personal distance – prevents people from fully engaging with the products.

  6. Found your site from James’ recommendation over at Copyblogger and added your feed to my feedreader – your writing is most insightful.

    I definitely feel the way something is displayed makes a profound difference. I’ve been marketing online now since 1997, and have the switch from teeny tiny icons to luxurious huge (for me) representations (ie, ebook covers, shadows, 3d, and NO, no lens flares anymore. :) ).

    It seems that gratifying as many senses as possible is the way to go these days…and in the online sector, ‘visual’ plays a huge part indeed.

  7. Sinea says:

    Copyblogger does it again. So glad that he referred you.
    This article is great. Thank you!

    I can only guess the lower response to articles with NO photos attached.

  8. Kurt Munz says:

    I guess that’s why putting a picture of a box for downloadable software is effective?

  9. Susan Weinschenk says:

    Paolo — I am working on a blog about casinos and slot machines, so stay tuned!

    Aarni — video is usually very effective because moving pictures (video as opposed to static images) always gets more attention. But it would be interesting to see the research.

  10. Evan says:

    I found this after some reading on business Insider. I have run several websites since 96, and now a kids toy store online. It is disturbing research indeed that people are so touchy feely… We’ll have to work very hard or be unbeleivably innovative to overcome or adapt this issue. It will be VERY interesting to do some AB testing on my site!

  11. Robin says:

    Kurt having been involved in that process I can tell you the marketing people found people preferred the download link tha had the picture of the box they’d see on the store shelf versus a text link or picture of just a DVD. The internet version of having it right in front of you.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Thanks so much for your clear and compelling summary of this research. I wonder about the implications for people who offer online services versus in-person services?

  13. Jeff says:

    I’d be interested to know if video has a closer bias to pictures or to the real item. Interesting concept either way.

  14. pelangi casino says:

    astounding stuff, Thanks much for this! it is very helpful post personally. This will absolutely gonna support me inside my projects

  15. Mina says:

    Taking an embodied cognition perspective, I think the action (in this case, potential action or possible action) itself stimulates us to prefer the actual product in stead of the one behind plexiglass, pictured one, or texted one. It is well acknowledged that people want to experience things before they make any purchase decision. One source of doing this is through touch, and other human behaviors. The information contained in the products, such as chips, not only lies in the product itself, but also the natural bodily interaction with the products, such as weighting it with your hands, touching its texture, and flipping to feel the product. So when people have the products in front of them, although they’re not allowed to touch it, they still have the natural tendency to interact it, or we could say, they still have the resource to immediately experience it. Simply put, the body matters. When you’re making decisions, your body and brain are all called into service.
    (It’s only my personal opinion, it’s interesting to see what other people think.)

  16. Laura-Jane says:

    Susan, I heard you on the CopyBlogger podcast and I am completely enamored with all this research and the concept of persuasion design, which is something that I wasn’t really familiar with. My interests are in the fusion of the internet and people. I shall be buying your book.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "100 Things You Should Know About People: #47 — People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of Them"
  1. […] it? According to a recent study on consumer buying trends, people are more likely to pay more for an item if they have the item in front of them. They let […]

  2. Food, Sex, Danger « Scott Alumbaugh/Weblog says:

    […] entitled “100 Things You Should Know About People.”  As of this writing, she’s up to thing number 47: “People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of […]

  3. […] friend Trisha mentioned this tip to me, and it’s backed up by psychology studies. People value something that is physically in front of them more highly than if they simply see an image of it. So I get 5×7 proofs printed through ProDPI. Yes, it […]

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
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