Going against the Flow: Bodily Sensation and Consumer Choice

KWON, Mina | ADAVAL, Rashmi

Economists believe that consumers making purchasing decisions are pre-programmed to choose the normatively preferred option, described as “going with the flow.” However, going against the flow may be equally important. In a fascinating study, HKUST’s Rashmi Adaval and a co-researcher explored whether the feeling of deviating from a norm can influence purchasing behavior. In a world of sophisticated marketing and branding, might our product choices be influenced by something as simple as entering a building as others exit, or running a hand against the weave of a piece of fabric?

The researchers sought to tap into our subconscious store of what scientists describe as dynamic sensorimotor experiences, which are richly and vividly encoded in memory. Our memories of walking on a sandy beach, for example, capture not only how the beach looked but also how the sand felt beneath our feet, the sound of the waves and the sun on our skin. Such powerful bodily sensations, say the researchers, “can serve as inputs in decision making, altering the choices individuals make.”

Clearly, this has important implications for consumer purchasing behavior. The team set out to explore how activating a particular kind of sensorimotor experience, going against the flow, can affect consumers’ future purchasing decisions. “We hypothesized that the experience of going against the flow influences the disposition to choose something that is not normatively preferred, because people go against their initial inclination.”

The researchers tested this hypothesis in eight experiments designed to engender the feeling of going against the flow. In one experiment, the participants were asked to rub their hands against a sample of fake fur, either in the direction of hair growth (with the flow) or against it. They were then invited to choose between four types of t-shirt, one of which was considered the preferred option. While those participants who went with the flow made the expected choice, “the subjective feeling of going against the flow increased consumers’ preferences for options that are normatively less preferred,” report the researchers.

In another test, the participants had to imagine themselves going against the flow. After watching a short video clip of a crowd walking in a subway station, they were asked to remember it as vividly as they could, and imagine themselves either flowing with the crowd or against it. They were then asked to choose between two brands of chocolate. Fascinatingly, merely imagining going against the flow was enough to inspire the participants to try the less preferred option. “Imagining these sensations affects choice in the same way that actually experiencing them does,” write the researchers.

The research sheds light on the subconscious mechanisms underlying purchasing decisions, This fills a gap in the literature, because “relatively few studies have examined the effects of such dynamic sensory experiences on choice or considered how and why they might affect choice.” The study also has significant practical applications. “Marketers often fail to indicate which items are preferred,” the researchers explain. “In these cases, consumers are likely to use their own internal sense of flow to make their choices.” Understanding this process can help marketers promote their products in today’s increasingly crowded global marketplace, in which consumers face an often bewildering array of choices.

ADAVAL, Rashmi

Adjuct Professor