/ 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.

That’s how it should be, Malcolm. The problem arises when style takes priority over practical issues. There are plenty of examples of opportunity to improve the user interface of products. With electronic items this can sometimes be achieved by software updates.

Chris Stephens says:
16 January 2015

“…what we all actually want, need and desire”. Well there’s a project destined to failure! If anything is certain it’s that we all want, need and desire totally different things. As soon as I even enter a shop this becomes clear: I want, more than anything, peace and quiet. Clearly what most other people want is music, music, music, everywhere they go. I complain to the Manager and I am told that I’m the only person who has said they don’t like it. I point out that others have the choice to use an iPod or similar if they want to listen to their choice of music, but I am being given no choice. But companies have been convinced that people buy more when there is background noise so they are not interested in real ‘choice’.
I do not believe big companies have any interest in finding out what individuals want. Want a TV that doesn’t have a black plastic surround? Want to go back to OS7 on your iPad? Want to buy toys for girls that aren’t made of pink plastic (but don’t cost an arm and a leg).
There are millions of products out there, but look up, say, fridges in Which? and you are essentially comparing minor variations of the same thing. I spent months trying to find a fridge-freezer with a large freezer and a small fridge. Can’t be done. No call for it.
You can have whatever ‘needs, wants and desires’ you like, but unless you buy into the majority taste, current fashions, today’s ‘look’, you can forget it.
As far as I can see, knowing why we make consumer choices is just another bit of psychology that will be grabbed by big companies to better target their advertising. It won’t make for more product choice because companies already know we want different things, but are only interested in the economies of scale. The only answer is a proliferation of smaller niche companies, and that is most certainly not the direction we’re heading in.

Well said Chris. It’s time we started to scupper what the marketing people are inflicting on us. We need some good documentaries to help people see how they are being manipulated. Obviously not on commercial TV. 🙂

I am always surprised by the tendency for suppliers to dump their existing customer bases in an attempt to tap into a new one. The classic, in my opinion, is M&S menswear. I used to buy most of my clothes from this store but then they decided to go after the ‘youth’ market and I found that the products that I used to buy were no longer available. The result is that my spend in the store is minimal, just oddments, and I now get most of my clothing via the internet.

I believe that similar comments apply the ladies’ department which no doubt explains why M&S are having profit problems in these areas

Younger people spend more on clothing and the M&S shareholders would not be very happy if the company ignored that sector.

When I was younger, I wouldn’t be seen dead in anything that looked like it came from M&S.
That stigma has stuck and I only buy plainish clothes there that could have come from anywhere. I’ve always bought plain t-shirts and vests there but last year they were all too long and very unflattering so didn’t get any. Mens clothes tend to be on the plain side anyway.
If the young of today still think the same, M&S are making a big mistake putting all their efforts into them.

I’ve bought clothing from M&S over the years partly because of the quality and price, partly because I have never been particularly fashion conscious, and partly because they made longer-length trousers and jackets to suit my legs and arms. However, I would suggest younger people have a quite different attitude to clothes, looking for extensive wardrobes so shop for the current fashion at low cost. If they aren’t going to wear something for long durability is not important. Not M&S’s image, Leave it to the specialists.

Unfortunately, M&S started putting logos on some of their leisurewear. I’m not going to buy it.

Before retiring I spent 20 odd years in business to business sales, not quite the same as selling to the general public but many of the principles are the same. Sales psychology is absolutely fascinating and if you know a little about it you become amazed by the sales pitch methods many of the general public falls for. It all comes down to a few basic psychological issues or as I prefer to call them myths of need. A person of my standing should buy this, it’s a really good deal, I’m letting my family down if I don’t have one, it’s expensive but I’ll buy because its really good quality, and the list goes on. These needs or desires are partly the creation of the kind of society we live in but mostly they are seeds planted by the marketing people.

My favourite sales pitches include; “half price or 50% off” but 50% off what? meaningless unless these items were good value and selling well at full price (in which case there wouldn’t be a 50% off offer) The final price compared to anywhere else I can buy is the only thing that counts.

“Three for the price of two” Sounds great unit price drops by a third? Thing is I only need or wanted one. So go for 3 for the price of 2 and I spend twice as much and get 2 items I don’t need. Unless you really use a lot of whatever you’ve fallen for a marketing ploy.

“Sale must end this weekend” This is the ultimatum sales close suggesting you’ll miss out on a bargain if you don’t buy now. You are rushed into a purchase you might not otherwise have been so keen to make. And go along Monday after the end of the sale and ask if you can have it at the sale price or you won’t buy anything. I’ve done this and been offered the sale price, but even if they don’t go for it there will be another sales push with lower prices quite soon so just wait them out.

Another ploy is to offer extra for no more money, “upgrade to triple glazing at no extra cost”. Well they don’t run at a loss so you can be sure it’s in the cost anyway. It’s called adding value to a sale. Great if it’s what you really want and need but often you pay more than you budgeted and got something although nice wasn’t really necessary.

I advise you question every offer and try to work out what they are doing and why. Seeing through their motives gives you a better insight into the realities of the proposition before you. Still might be something you need and even buy but at least you’ll realize there are no free lunches.

And finally remember the price of anything is only what someone is prepared to pay, or perhaps if the marketing people get their way can be persuaded to pay.