Study: Shoppers Bamboozled by Big Numbers

Last Updated Oct 27, 2008 9:51 AM EDT

  • 69688594_9ecc6f4d33_m.jpgThe Find: Shoppers are suckers for statistics and specifications and are influenced by even meaningless numbers, a recent study reveals.
  • The Source: An article in Ars Technica referencing a study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
The Takeaway: Say you're in the market for a new digital camera. You head over to your local gadget store and test out a few choices. One camera feels good in your hand, seems to have the features you're looking for and takes nice pictures. Seems like a sure fire winner. Another choice, however, has more impressive stats and specifications- more megapixels, etc. So what influences you more: actually liking a product or the numbers on the box? New research conducted with students at a Chinese university claims to have an answer:
The authors took a single image, and used Photoshop to create a sharper version, and one with more vivid colors; they told the students that the two versions came from different cameras. When told nothing about the cameras, about 25 percent of the students chose the one that had made the sharper image. But providing a specification reversed that. When told that the other model captured more pixels using a figure based on the diagonal of the sensor, more than half now picked it.
Statistics, it appears, count more than the evidence of our own eyes. You might argue that more megapixels are generally understood to be a good thing and the students were just being rational. But it turns out the numbers don't have to be meaningful, just large. The researchers also made up a totally meaningless scale that was supposed to represent the aromatic properties of sesame oil. This completely useless number was again shown to sway students' purchasing decisions- even though they were warned it was meaningless. Bigger numbers even seemed to compel participants to complete more work for a lesser reward:
Participants were given a choice between a short proofreading task that would award 60 points and a longer proofreading task that would award 100 points and were told that 60 points would entitle them to a serving of vanilla ice cream and 100 points would entitle them to an equally large serving of pistachio ice cream. Most participants opted for the longer task. But when asked later which flavor they would enjoy more, most favored the vanilla ice cream.
The takeaway for marketers couldn't be clearer: if your product doesn't already have some numbers attached, you need to get busy dreaming some up and don't trouble yourself too much if the stats you come up with are largely to completely meaningless. They'll do the trick anyway.

The Question: As a consumer, would you admit to being a sucker for stats?

(Image of digital cameras by ppz, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.