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Cognitive lock-in: Why you can't teach an old dog new tricks

The ability to learn from experience is of central importance to human existence. It allows us to acquire many of the skills we need to complete a wide variety of complicated, multi-step tasks in an efficient manner.

It also creates habit – a critical, if often overlooked factor in the product and service choices consumers make. An important new study from the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates how this “cognitive lock-in” can cause us to remain loyal to a product, even if objectively better alternatives exist.

“We find that consumers typically are not aware that this mechanism is a powerful determinant of the choices they make,” write Kyle B. Murray (University of Western Ontario) and Gerald Häubl (University of Alberta).

Murray and Häubl examine a theory of cognitive lock-in centered around the notion of skill-based habits of use, that is, how using or purchasing a product becomes easier with repetition. In a series of experiments, they find that people are more influenced by their perceptions of ease-of-use rather than how objectively easy a product is to use.

Importantly, they also find that habits are dependent not only on the acquisition of a particular skill set, but on our desire to achieve specific goals. As the authors write, “This has important implications for consumer behavior. For example, learning to navigate a particular grocery store to purchase orange juice does not necessarily lock consumers in to that store when their goal is to buy a cake. Similarly, becoming skilled at looking up stock quotes at does not mean that the user will inevitably sign up for a Yahoo email account.”

The authors continue: “This is an important finding because it demonstrates the specific nature of the link between the development of habits of use and consumer loyalty. In fact, the results of the current research indicate that, although habits of use can create a substantial advantage for an incumbent where otherwise none exists, such an advantage appears to be limited to the achievement of a particular goal.”

Suzanne Wu | EurekAlert!
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