Why you buy what you buy and when

A flurry of new consumer studies shed light on the buying choices people make, explaining, for example, why we choose romantic movies over other genres when we feel cold, how our definition of happiness influences what we spend our money on and what affects brand loyalty.

Consumer research looks for hidden motives

Studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research range from why we prefer romantic movies when we're cold to how we make buying decisions based on our definition of happiness. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

A flurry of new consumer studies shed light on the buying choices people make, explaining, for example, why we choose romantic movies over other genres when we feel cold, how our definition of happiness influences what we spend our money on and what affects brand loyalty.

All five of the studies were published this week in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The research can help empower consumers who are bewildered by all the ads bombarding them, not only on television and radio but also on their computers and cellphones, said Darren Dahl, the journal’s associate editor and a professor at the University of British Columbia.

"The amount of advertising consumers see has grown exponentially, so it’s definitely more complicated and cluttered out there for them, he said in a phone interview from Vancouver.

"These studies do provide a lot of understanding for consumers, letting them know why they behave the way they do, so when they’re approached by a marketer or salesperson, they can put the information into context."

1. Romantic movies

Researchers found that people choose to see romantic movies when they are physically cold, because that state activates a need for psychological warmth.

"We often think of love as being warm. This link between love and warmth appears in everyday language, songs, and poems," wrote co-authors Jiewen Hong of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Yacheng Sun of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In the study, they found that subjects who drank cold tea were more likely than people who drank warm tea to choose romance movies over other genres. In another experiment, the researchers varied the room temperature where participants were seated and found the same results.

When subjects were made aware of their physical coldness, the preference for romance movies did not arise. The researchers also used movie rental data from an online DVD rental company to confirm that people were more likely to rent romance movies when the temperature outside was lower.

Their conclusion? "Movie studios might be better off releasing their romance movies in the winter season, when the temperatures are low."

2. What is happiness?

The pursuit of happiness often drives consumer choice, but it means different things to different people, depending on whether they're focused on the future or the present.

"The specific meaning of happiness individuals adopt determines the choices they make — such as the music they listen to, the type of tea they drink, and the brand of water they buy," wrote the study’s co-authors, Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University, and Sepandar Kamvar of MIT.

Based on blogs, lab experiments and surveys, they found that people experience happiness in two main ways — through excitement and calmness.

Consumers who associate happiness with excitement tend to be younger and more focused on the future. They chose "exciting" products when they were offered tea, music or bottled water. However, as people get older they tend to associate happiness with calmness and being present in the moment and choose calming brands and products.

While age is a good indicator of future versus present focus, people can be oriented to either with words or through meditation, the authors wrote.

3. Numbers

Consumers react differently to units of measurement — depending on whether they have a concrete or abstract mindset at the time.

People with a concrete mindset tuned in to the sizes of numbers (numerosity), while those in the abstract mindset tuned in to units (unitosity), wrote co-authors Ashwani Monga of the University of South Carolina and Rajesh Bagchi of Virginia Tech.

They based their finding on a series of experiments looking at consumers' perceptions of the height of buildings, the time of maturity of financial products, the weight of nutrients, and the length of tables.

"Consumers have a concrete mindset in some situations, such as when they are about to make a purchase, but an abstract mindset in other situations, such as when they are shopping for a future purchase," the authors wrote.

"Consider a consumer being told about a delay in delivery time. Numerosity suggests that a delay from seven days to 21 days seems larger than a delay from one week to three weeks because people use the size of the numbers to infer the size of the change: a change from seven to 21 seems bigger than a change from one to three."

However, people with an abstract mindset would more likely tune into the fact that a delay of weeks seems greater than a delay of days, the authors wrote.

4. Brand loyalty

Consumers tend to buy a product if they perceive it to be a good way of achieving their currently active goals.

"The model assumes that product evaluations and choices are motivated by consumers' expectations about the benefits of a product (for example, expecting that eating fruit instead of cheesecake will benefit health)," wrote study co-authors Stijn van Osselaer of Erasmus University, the Netherlands and Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Momentary goal activation is influenced by factors such as exposure to the goal (seeing or hearing the word "health"), cues in the environment (seeing someone work out), recent goal satisfaction (you just worked out), or exposure to goal-consistent products (like healthy snacks).

5. Distancing technique

Physical or psychological distance can help consumers who are having trouble making purchasing decisions by reducing their anxiety and confusion, concluded co-authors Manoj Thomas of Cornell University and Claire I. Tsai of the University of Toronto.

They based their finding on experiments where subjects were asked to choose between two products or defer the decision. Half were told to lean toward the computer screen and the other half were told to lean away.

"This simple manipulation of psychological distance influenced participants' choice," the authors write. "Those who leaned toward the screen found the choice to be more difficult and were more likely to defer the choice than those who leaned away from the screen," wrote the authors.

They found similar results when they encouraged subjects in another experiment to think more abstractly, creating psychological distance.

With files from the Journal of Consumer Research