/ Money, Shopping

Do you really consciously choose what you buy?

How much control do you have over your choice of products? Edward Gardiner of Warwick Business School tells us why research into our behaviour can help empower consumers in their decision making.

Almost 60 years ago the journalist Vance Packard ‘exposed’ the psychological techniques used by advertisers in his book, The Hidden Persuaders.

Motivational research was apparently being used to identify needs so strong that people were compelled to buy the products that fulfilled them. Manipulation was the name of the game.

The book was more fiction than fact, but fast forward to present day and we’ve been through a golden age of behavioural research. We know more about what influences people’s choices than ever before. More importantly we know that the majority of human behaviour is not influenced by choice at all, occurring intuitively, effortlessly and with little conscious awareness.

So should we be worried?

Will advances in behavioural science lead to an arms race between consumers and marketers? Will greater awareness about our own decisions and the methods used by companies give more power to the people, or will we continue to drift through life at the mercy of what we’re compelled to buy?

Behavioural insights may be a double-edged sword but advances elsewhere tip the balance. Design, technology and social media are making it easier for people to make and share ideas, put pressure on companies and create movements for change. The feedback loop is only the length of a tweet and visible for all to see. The power truly lies with the people.

But the future is not ‘we’ the people and ‘they’ the organisations. The future is ensuring that policies, products and services are developed together from a starting point of what we all actually want, need and desire. Companies that place people and society back at the heart of business will gain the trust of their customers and ultimately meet both social and commercial goals.

Improving your lives through research

This is why we at the University of Warwick and Design Council are excited to be partnering with Which? in a joint programme of research and development called ‘Design for Real Consumers’.

Our aim is to improve people’s lives through original research and the design of practical solutions across consumer markets and public services. Examples include:

  • Enabling better choices in social care.
  • Putting consumers in control of their credit.
  • Making it easier for those who can afford to, start saving and save better.

Behavioural science will be crucial to understanding many of the key challenges in people’s lives, but these insights must be combined with novel, creative ideas that are genuinely desirable and commercially viable.

We’re looking forward to working together and with partners to develop new ways of guiding and supporting people in making better decisions.

What do you think about behavioural insights being used to empower us in our decision making? Can it be a force for good? How do you think this kind of research can by applied to products, service and policy making?


Commercial companies will use all kinds of techniques to persuade us to buy their products, and more of them. Why do we upgrade TVs, change cars regularly, have far too many clothes for example, get as new phone every year? It is, in the end, our choice – even though we might be subjected to skillful temptations.

Good luck, but the economy seems to depend upon two things – inflation to buy now before prices rise (I don’t follow that argument as it happens) and buy stuff you don’t need but like, that keeps increasing production going. Disposable income could go into savings and pensions, but we prefer to dispose of it, don’t we?


Apart from any big brother implications, this article seems to lack a little focus. You cast your net very wide, talking about commercial temptations, social care, people’s credit and their saving habits. There are a great many sub menues to all of these things. I have no doubt that the commercial world has a very good grasp of behavioural science and is using it daily to encourage us to spend. I also believe that there are a number of real life factors that cut across any psychological study. Financial restraints prevent most of us from acquiring the Rolls or Mediterranean yacht that we might covet. Drop a scale or two and the same is true of lesser items. I am not persuaded that Jo Public goes around salivating over the latest this or that. I believe that, for most purchases, they know exactly what they want and have thought long and hard about getting it at the right price. We all impulse buy from time to time but certainly not all the time. Human behaviour is dictated by circumstances and our reaction to them That reaction is usually a considered one and we are surely not totally impelled along by subconscious desires and thoughts. Coming to social services, these are dictated largely by what is (or is not) offered to us. We are dragged along by the system and have to make the best of what there is. As regards savings, look at the pensioner bonds. Make it attractive and people,who can, might be tempted to save. I am very suspicious of social engineering, because in this diverse world of ours, one man’s utopia is another man’s hell and most of us prefer to plough our own furrows as best we can. By all means improve our social structure by common consent and common effort. If asked, most of us will have a clear idea (not necessarily the same) of what needs to to be done locally, nationally and internationally to improve our world. The art of good governing, at any level, is to translate those ideas, supported by the majority, into reality, battling against the realities of life along the way. Try using behavioural science to counter the chancellor’s cuts, the chaos in the national health service and our growing problems with junior school places at one end and an aging population at the other. The real world transcends psychology and dictates its own terms to us.


Vynor – I think you should lead this project. You recognise that our decisions are not made for other people’s approval but for our own satisfaction.


In a scientific approach to consumer choice we would follow a rational algorithmic path towards a decision and always be satisfied that we had made the best choice given the factors that we took into account at the time. Thankfully, life is not that robotic and we get pleasure from the multi-dimensional and serendipitous intervention of the senses that propel us in less direct routes towards our goal. When I started reading Edward’s Introduction I was mildly excited but my interest waned when I realised that the objective of this exercise might be “Enabling better choices in social care, Putting consumers in control of their credit, and Making it easier for those who can afford to, [to] start saving and save better [?]”. Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to make machines that explode, companies still provide services that don’t serve us well, and financial institutions carry on diddling us. I look forward to seeing how this project identifies the ‘Real Consumers’ and gets a true understanding of their aspirations and their processes of discrimination between competing and conflicting options.


I have a confession. I’m a very bad consumer. I have not watched commercial TV for years, so I miss out on a lot of indoctrination. When I do see advertising I take a strange delight in looking for misrepresentation. I tend to hold on to products I own if they are still doing a good job. I’m happy to replace products such as computers and phones frequently because they become obsolete but I’m quite happy with my old vacuum cleaner, washing machine and freezer.

My first introduction to the Design Council was in the 1970s when I encountered what I and my work colleagues considered to be a dangerous product that had won a DC award. I don’t know much about the DC and have always assumed it is something to do with marketing and sales promotion. On one of the pages of the DC website it says: “Our experts
Independent, informed, passionate”

I wonder how independent the DC really is.

What would impress me is detailed specifications and ten year warranties provided by the manufacturer at no additional cost.


I remember attending a DC exhibition of prize winning designs when I was a student many years ago. My main memory was that most of the designs were impracticable and simply could not be made to work. When we mentioned this to one of the staff at the exhibition he just commented that the little technical chappies would sort out such matters. We came away with the impression that appearance was much more important than function when it came to winning design prizes!


Tonyp – From our previous discussions I have a recollection that your background is in engineering or science. If so, you probably need to be handicapped by rose-tinted glasses to appreciate the award-winning designs.


I have worked with “designers” in the past on functional products who did not have an engineering appreciation and seemed to think that understanding the practicality of operation and production was unecessary. So the “little technical chappy” had to do the bulk of the work to make it work. My experience is that a good concept and style designer will work with a good engineering team to produce a product that combines those trite but sensible attributes of form and function, plus manufacturability.