Time to get Real!

Consumer Psychology has come a long way in the last twenty years. Today most marketers will have considered the psychology behind their latest campaigns.

What popular consumer psychology books like Predictably Irrational and Thinking, Fast & Slow got wrong

I’d argue that this shift is primarily thanks to the publication of numerous excellent books that have brought consumer psychology to a wider audience. There are too many to mention, 
but a few that spring to mind include: Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Richard Shotton’s The Choice Factory, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow. As a psychologist, what excites me about these books is their ability to take top quality psychological research and explain what it means in an accessible way.

But there’s a catch, most of the studies described in these books are laboratory-based experiments. I’m an experimental consumer psychologist and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that laboratory studies are useful. They allow us to refine our ideas and check they work. There is nothing more embarrassing than convincing both a client and a supermarket to fund your idea only for it to fail spectacularly in market.

They demonstrate that our ideas work in a highly controlled environment, but a university laboratory is a far cry from the actual shopping environment. Imagine trying to decide what baked beans you want to buy in a busy supermarket, while simultaneously pacifying a screaming toddler – this situation has no resemblance to the sterile university labs. For the last fifteen years this is something I’ve been acutely aware of, once the lab effect is stable, I’ve always tried to replicate it in a real shopping environment. But all too often the findings don’t replicate – or at least not quite in the same way.

So... What’s wrong with lab-based studies?

Reassuringly, new research has shown that this is not a problem just restricted to my laboratory, but it is an industry wide challenge9. Different designs of ‘nutrition labels’ (the traffic light nutritional labels you find on food products that indicate how healthy or unhealthy they are) have been used across Europe and their design was tested in a series of laboratory studies. However, when researchers compared the results of these lab-based studies to the real world they found some worrying findings.

The researchers tested the impact of four different labelling systems (see picture) against a control featuring no nutrition labels, and they compared what happened in a lab and a supermarket. First the good news, both studies found the same type of nutritional label was the most effective at encouraging customers to purchase healthier products - the Nutri-score label. In the supermarket just displaying these labels on all products led to a 2.6% improvement in the average nutritional quality of shoppers’ purchase. But here is the worrying news. The difference in effect size between the two studies was significant – the impact of the labels was 17 times smaller in the supermarket study than the lab-based study predicted. So if you are basing business decisions on lab studies alone, you could be in for a rude awakening!

Why doesn’t it work as described? 

It is impossible to recreate a supermarket shopping experience in a laboratory. In this study they did the best they could and asked 691 participants to do their weekly food shop from a paper catalogue. Participants were then asked to unexpectedly do a second food shop, but this time using a different catalogue. The two catalogues were identical except that it contained one of four different nutrition labels (or no label as a control). But most people don’t do their weekly food shop from a catalogue - it doesn’t even replicate an online shopping trip.

Contrast this to the experiment they conducted in the supermarket. Each of the four label types were tested in 10 different supermarkets over a ten-week period. That’s 60 different supermarkets (20 acted as a control with no labels) and 1.9 million labels were placed on 1,266 different food products. In total they analysed the purchase behaviour of 1.6 million transactions – a mammoth undertaking!

What does this mean in practice?

First of all, do keep reading all of those amazing psychology books. However, don’t just accept everything they say as gospel and believe it will work perfectly for you. Sometimes it’s worth thinking critically about the findings and asking yourself, how did they test this? Could this finding occur in a ‘real’ retail environment?

If you’re still not certain maybe conduct a mini experiment yourself. However, if you’re not sure about an experiment, or you don’t know how to run one – drop us an e-mail. We always love to chat psychology, even if you don’t have a fixed idea!

Sometimes it’s worth thinking critically about the findings and asking yourself, how did they test this? Could this finding occur in a ‘real’ retail environment? 

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