Psychology and Consumer Research

Our thanks to Pete Foley, PTG guest blogger and innovation expert, for the third and final installment of long form blog posts that explore how psychology, behavioral and perceptual science can be applied to consumer research.  Today, Pete addresses the important intersection of conscious and unconscious factors and how they influence consumer retail decisions. 

This is the third in a series of blogs that explore how psychology, behavioral and perceptual science can be applied to consumer research. Today I’ll talk about some ways to design research that compliments noninvasive measures, thus helping us to get a better line of sight on the mixture of unconscious and conscious elements that influence retail decisions. I‘ll also talk about how these techniques can help us probe a couple of key perceptual mechanisms – deselection and affordances.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, panelists over-thinking the decisions we study is one of the biggest enemies of predictive research.

Most decisions result from a mix of low and high engagement decision processes, and the mechanisms and outcomes of these are often different. Fast, time constrained decisions favor defaults, habits, and hence familiar brands and past choices. Longer, more thoughtful decisions open up the possibility of evaluating newer, perhaps riskier choices. Somebody rushing through a supermarket with many items on a shopping list may simply grab a familiar brand that they know they or their family will enjoy. It is a safe bet, and requires little effort. However, put them in research where it is obvious that we are very interested in their choice, and they may allocate more time to the decision, and consider new options. I’ve mentioned before that creating this kind of engagement may well be our goal if we are launching a new product, but if our data is to be predictive, it is critical that this high engagement thinking is triggered organically by our product or service, and is not an artifact of our methodology.

Restoring the Balance: There are things we can do to mitigate these potential confounds. Noninvasive, mobile techniques such as biometrics and eye tracking free us to test in more realistic contexts, and help prevent our measurement intruding on the test. However, all sorts of effects, ranging from lack of availability of prototypes, confidentiality, or lack of access to real retail environments mean that we often cannot test in a completely real context.

However, there are a couple of things we can do to augment noninvasive techniques, and mimic realistic levels of engagement, even if we cannot test in a completely realistic setting. For example, we can disguise the questions we are asking, and/or add enough ‘noise’ and cognitive load into a test so that the amount of time and effort people can allocate to the decisions we want to study approximates the real world.

Disguised Questions: For example, it is common in Behavioral Economics to go to great lengths to avoid people knowing exactly what question is being asked. Dan Ariely, the well known Behavioral Economist from Duke University has a terrific movie out at the moment called Dishonesty, and in it there are some wonderful and very creative examples of experimental techniques that disguise what data is being collected. My favorite is a modified shredder, that only shreds the very edges of documents, allowing his team to collect data that panelists believe they destroy because it is of no interest to the testers.

There are also many ways that we can disguise what questions we are asking. One of the simplest is to simply bury them in with a lot of other questions. In a retail context, for example, give people a long shopping list, a limited time to shop, and bury the decision we are really interested in somewhere in the middle of the list. Or give panelists a challenging, complex task that they think is the reason they are there, but bury the question we are really interested in another part of the process. Perhaps ask them to take part in a crowd-sourcing exercise, but offer a choice of products at the end of the test as their reward for doing the research. That is the decision we are really interested in. It’s not perfect, but they will reserve most of their mental effort for the part of the test that they think is being observed, which we may not even measure, and treat our target decision at the end with a level of engagement that more closely mirrors what they would do in the real world.

Signaling: Disguised questions not only help create a realistic balance of high and low engagement in another way. They help to avoid another potential artifact, another effect studied in Behavioral Economics called signaling. Part of the reason we buy designer brands is because they signal something about us to other people. The brand may be says something about our affluence, our values, or our lifestyle that we want to advertise. Think about this in the context of retail research. Are we more likely to buy a premium brand, or perhaps a smart, but expensive new product if we know people are watching us, than if we just run into a store, or browse a website where nobody knows us, and nobody is taking any notice of us?

Distraction: Disguising our question helps stop people from putting disproportionate time against it, but our ideal is to get them into a flow where they largely forget that they are being tested. Cutting edge techniques like eye tracking in the form of eye-glasses, noninvasive biometrics and wearable technologies all help with this, as they become almost invisible to the wearer after a short period of time. Giving people multiple, complex tasks as in the disguised choice testing described above also helps. A third, complimentary approach is to add non task related distracters. In a retail environment, add muzak, the smell of the bakery, other shoppers, shelf stockers, all of which add cognitive load that mimics the real world. Multisensory distractors like sound and smell are particularly useful.

Selection, Deselection and Grouping: In my last couple of blogs I talked about the heuristics that guide and capture attention. Typically, we want attention. We don’t want our new initiative to become an invisible gorilla – big, hairy, but largely invisible to the people who we want to notice it. However, not all attention is good, and if we do need it, attention alone is not always enough.

Why would we not want attention? Attention, in general, activates thinking and engagement. If we want to disrupt a market, or if we are a small player who wants to grow, this is a good thing. We want shoppers to stop and consider us. That means breaking through their habits and defaults, which are largely low engagement processes, and instead engaging them in high engagement thinking that can lead to new behaviors. But if we are already the market leader, this is risky. Certainly, we still need people to find us, but it is better if this occurs primarily via low engagement processes like past experience and memory. If we are located where they’ve found us before, and look like we’ve always looked, then they can find us without having to pay much attention. And provided we deliver quality performance, that is often enough to make the sale. Making people think more about their decision only opens the door to other options.

Attention is not always enough: If we are not a market leader, and want to grow share, then we do need to change behavior. Attention is part of what we need, but it is not enough on its own. The heuristics that guide visual search have evolved for efficiency, and a big part of that efficiency comes from not wasting time and resources on stuff that isn’t useful. If you read my first blog, I talked about saccades, and how our visual system uses what amounts to an attentional spotlight to focus our vision on information that is important. The counter to this is that we process very little detailed attention on areas that are not salient to us. For example, if we are driving down the freeway hungry, feature gain effects make the spotlight more sensitive to things that can provide food, and so we notice restaurants more than if we’d just eaten. But because our attentional resources are finite, this means that we also pay less attention to other things like electronics stores or gas stations. We will notice them, but because they don’t fit with our goals, we quickly deselect them. Something similar happens in a supermarket. If a shopper is looking for a soda, and their preferred brand is Coke, feature gain effects mean their attention is tuned to red. A high contrast section of, for example, blue may still grab their attention, but only briefly. As with the gas station or electronic store, their attention will quickly move on. They may spend just enough time on it to draw a boundary around the blue section, creating a whole section that they can ignore. This grouping and deselection is very efficient for the visual system, but can be very damaging if it happens to our brand. Obviously it is really important to know if it is happening to us, and if yes, mitigate it. Noninvasive eye tracking is about the only way to find this out, and test ways to address it.

Embodied Cognition: In the last couple of blogs I’ve talked a lot about tapping into heuristics and unconscious drivers of behavior. Noninvasive techniques, and the kind of test designs I’ve just described above allow us to get a much better line of sight on these. However, there is one heuristic I haven’t mentioned which may especially benefit from these techniques. We unconsciously reach for, touch, and hold objects that fit with our bodies. For example, we grab or pull a handle, cradle a curved object in our hand, and pull away from something sharp, or with hard angles. Called affordances in psychology, these effects are both subtle and powerful, and operate almost exclusively below awareness. A handle that is too small for a hand, or that butts up against another product on a shelf, and is hence difficult to grab, can cause shoppers to unconsciously deselect a product. Facing a choice between a product with a handle, and a very similar one without, shoppers will often unconsciously grab the one with the handle. Non-invasive methods allow us to more effectively evaluate, and iteratively design for these affordances.

So in summary, once we are armed with noninvasive techniques, it opens doors to both measure, and optimize all sorts of important, but otherwise hidden effects than can have a significant impact on what shoppers purchase. However, it is also important to pair noninvasive techniques with experimental designs that compliment them, and test shoppers who are making decisions with similar levels of engagement to those which would apply in the real world.

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