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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100 Things You Should Know About People: #14 — Reading Text Online Is Not Fun

Page Full of Text
Page Full of Text

It’s the holiday season right now in the USA which means that people are talking about what they want as a gift. I would like a Kindle or one of the new Barnes and Noble competitors to the Kindle. Since we are being frugal in our household this year I don’t think I’m going to get one (and I haven’t read the reviews yet to see whether I want the Kindle or the new B&N competitor).

Is a Kindle the same as text online? — It might seem contradictory, then, for me to say I want a Kindle and then write a post about the idea that reading text online is not fun. But actually I am not talking about the same thing at all. I’ve tried a Kindle, and the liquid ink technology is different than LCD displays on a laptop or a desktop monitor. Reading text on a computer screen is admittedly better than it was years ago. I go back to the dreaded “green screen” days, and I can say with certainty that reading text on my MacBook Pro is a lot better than reading text on the green (or amber — how many of you remember amber?) and black screens from yester year. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #14 — Reading Text Online Is Not Fun”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information

iphone with text message
Does the unpredictability of a text message trigger dopamine release?

Do you ever feel like you are addicted to email or twitter or texting? Do you find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in your inbox? Have you ever gone to Google to look up some information and 30 minutes later you realize that you’ve been reading and linking, and searching around for a long time, and you are now searching for something totally different than before? These are all examples of your dopamine system at work.

Enter dopamine — Neuro scientists have been studying what they call the dopamine system for a while. Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation, seeking and reward.

The myth — You may have heard that dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain: that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment, pleasure, and therefore motivates you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs.

It’s all about seeking — The latest research, though is changing this view. Instead of dopamine causing us to experience pleasure, the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases our general level of arousal and our goal-directed behavior. (From an evolutionary stand-point this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survive). It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the opioid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information”

100 Things You Should Know about People: #2 — You READ FASTER With a longer Line Length But PREFER Shorter

Have you ever had to decide how wide a column of text you should use on a screen? Should you use a wide column with 100 characters per line? or a short column with 50 characters per line?

It turns out that the answer depends on whether you want people to read faster or whether you want them to like the page!

Research (see reference below) demonstrates that 100 characters per line is the optimal length for on-screen reading speed; but it’s not what people prefer. People read faster with longer line lengths (100 characters per line), but they prefer a short or medium line length (45 to 72 characters per line). In the example above from the New York Times Reader, the line length averages 39 characters per line.

The research also shows that people can read one single wide column faster than multiple columns, but they prefer multiple columns (like the New York Times Reader above).

So if you ask people which they prefer they will say multiple columns with short line lengths. Interestingly, if you ask them which they read faster, they will insist it is also the multiple columns with short line lengths, even though the data shows otherwise.

It’s a quandary: Do you give people what they prefer or go against their own preference and intuition, knowing that they will read faster if you use a longer line length and one column?

What would you do?

Dyson, M.C. (2004). “How Physical Text Layout Affects Reading from Screen.” Behavior & Information Technology, 23(6), pp. 377-393.


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