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Threats to hope -- Desperation affects reasoning about product information

When our hopes are threatened, we often turn to the marketplace for help. Can’t fit into the gorgeous outfit you bought for your high school reunion" Trying to get pregnant" Want a bigger house but afraid you can’t afford it" A new study by researchers from University of Southern California argues that in situations like these, consumers are susceptible to “motivated reasoning.” We believe what we want to believe about products that promise to help – even if the arguments don’t come from credible sources.

Hope is threatened when people lose confidence that what they yearn for is possible, and this loss may result in a range of seemingly irrational behavior. Specifically, consumers interested in products that purport to enable goal-attainment will:

- Search for information from product-favorable information sources (including advertisements) - Regard favorable information as more credible - Be less discriminating about low-credibility message arguments - Be more likely to judge the product as effective

In the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, USC researchers Deborah J. MacInnis (Professor of Business Administration and Vice Dean of Research), David W. Stewart (Professor of Marketing and Chair, Dept. of Marketing), and their late colleague Gustavo De Mello outline three studies that demonstrate these phenomena.

For example, the first experiment asked ninety-nine undergraduates in the midst of mid-term exams to participate in a purportedly unrelated study conducted by the Office of Student Affairs, asking students to report on a variety of things, including how confident they felt about getting good grades.

The students were then asked to participate in an “unrelated” study that asked them to evaluate a new product – a memory booster. They were given background information from a manufacturer’s brochure (a favorable source) or from a newspaper article (an objective source), which they could access by clicking on a computer screen.

While both confident students and insecure students accessed the same number of pieces of information before making a judgment on the product, insecure students searched for more information from the favorable source than confident students and ended up rating the memory booster as more effective.

Similarly, the researchers found in subsequent experiments that less confident students had a more difficult time than more confident students differentiating between credible claims and weak claims for products that claimed to help meet a goal.

“The role of confidence in directing behavior, though widely recognized in psychology, has received scant attention in the consumer behavior literature,” write the authors. “Weight loss products, alternative medicines, and dietary supplements, are examples of product categories for which reduced confidence may be relevant and for which this illusion of control may be highly prevalent.”

Suzanne Wu | EurekAlert!
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