I was second in line at the pay desk of a Dutch department store. The man in front of me was carrying four coffee mugs in his hands and approached the counter. As he was ready to pay for the mugs, the woman behind the counter told him: “You know you get a 50% discount on these mugs when you bring your own shopping bag?” The man had not brought his own shopping bag. He looked at the woman for a second, briskly put the mugs on the counter and snapped at the woman: “Here, you can keep them!” before scampering off.
Initially, I was as baffled by his response as the woman behind the counter (I can still hear the sound of her jaw hitting her chest). What happened here? The man came to the store with the intent to buy mugs. He found the mugs, picked up four, very likely saw the price (let’s assume they were one Euro each, so 4 Euros in total) and made his way to the counter. Up until the moment the woman behind the counter started talking to him, he was perfectly happy to fork out 4 Euros for the mugs. But after been informed about the discount he did not want to pay 4 Euros for the mugs anymore. Rationally, this does not make sense!
After paying for my stuff (I did bring my own shopping bag, so got the 50% discount) I cycled home and realized that the man’s response díd make sense because it was not a rational but emotional choice he’d made. The decision he made seems to be affected by the anchoring effect. During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgements. Here is what I think happened. The man approaches the counter to pay 4 Euros (the “anchor”) for his mugs. He then is told he could have paid 2 Euros if he would have brought a shopping bag. Suddenly, the initial price of 4 Euros feels like a swindle to him and he decides not to buy the mugs and storms out.
So most of the time, we humans, we are not the rational beings we think we are. Our decisions and behavior are shaped and directed by unconscious processes and emotions. This also applies to sensory and consumer tests [1,2] in which traditionally questionnaires are used that tap into the cognitive information processing and rational reasoning with regard to the liking of or experience with a product.
A nice and practical example  of how unconscious processes affect consumer experience and satisfaction was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the Measuring Behavior conference. David Labbe and co-workers at Nestlé Research Center studied the effect of unconscious processes on sensory/functional satisfaction by using behavioral observations (focusing on 11 behaviors) during the interaction of consumers with packaged food (from unpacking to food preparation). After food consumption, consumers rated their overall satisfaction for the entire experience, and also for different attributes relating to different stages, from food unpacking until the end of consumption.
Multiple regression analysis showed that the rated sensory/functional satisfaction attributes did not significantly contribute to the overall satisfaction whereas three observed behaviors díd: the longer the duration of behavior B and the lower the occurrence of behaviors A and C, the more satisfying the overall experience.
The authors conclude that in their study the implicit behavioral approach seems more adapted to understand consumers’ satisfaction during interaction with a commercial packaged food at home compared to explicit questionnaire assessment.
What about the man that left the store with the mugs? Once he got home, did he realize that his ratio was beaten by his unconscious processes? If so, what would he have done next? If I was him, I know what I would have done: send my wife to the store to get the mugs. With a shopping bag.
- René de Wijk et al., 2014. ANS Responses and Facial Expressions Differentiate between the Taste of Commercial Breakfast Drinks, PloS ONE, 9 (4).
- René de Wijk et al., 2012. Autonomic nervous system responses on and facial expressions to the sight, smell, and taste of liked and disliked foods. Food Quality and Preference, 26, 196.203.