Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Product Success & The Availability Heuristic

How do we ensure that we get exactly what we ordered in restaurants, buying stain removers that actually does its job, or determine the likelihood that appliances need repairing? (Folkes, 1988). This post looks into how information processing biases affect our perceived likelihood of product success.

When it comes to buying a new product, we start to think about whether the product would be worth the buy and how reliable it would be based on various information sources, be it external (data provided from salespersons or in Consumer Reports, or told by someone we are close to) or internal (our own experiences with similar products). Most of the time, we would be influenced by a certain judgmental heuristic, called the availability heuristic – the ease with which a person can bring to mind perfect examples of an event (Kahneman and Tversky, 1973). How readily an event comes to our mind greatly affects estimates of how often the event occurs. Lichtenstein et. al (1978) found that people believe homicide occurs more frequently than suicide, and that death from fire is more likely to occur than death from drowning, all because differential media portrayal made the former deaths easier to recall. In terms of product risk, we would start to estimate product failure based on how easy it is to recall any incidents where the product failed. So, based on availability heuristic, the event will be deemed probable if recall came easily, but will be considered improbable if retrieval was difficulty.

Folkes (1988) conducted a few studies to investigate availability influences on our judgments of the likelihood of product success and product failure. The first study involved presenting subjects with product failure incidents that used either atypical brand names or typical brand names. After, they were asked on the effectiveness of the products presented and it was found that they will give higher estimates of product failure when the failing products were of distinctive brand names than when the failing products had typical brand names. Just by having an atypical brand name, any incidents or experiences involved with the product would automatically make it more distinctive – leading to it being more readily available. 

To further investigate this, another study was conducted, where subjects were asked to report how easy it was for them to recall product failure and product success incidents, as well as the feelings associated with the event. Research has found that when asking about the probability of an event, we would be more likely to look out for information about occurrences of the event more so than non-occurrences (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). For an example, when asked about the likelihood that food received in a restaurant will be different from what was ordered, consumers will find it easier to recall occurrences (getting the wrong order) than non-occurrences (getting the right order). Conversely, the opposite will be true if consumers were asked about the likelihood of getting the right order. Not only that, another factor could also influence the ease of recalling events, and that is the mood or feelings associated with the event (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). When strong affective reactions occur during an event, we will give greater attention to it, and thus, will find it easier to recall than when only neutral reactions occur (Higgins, Kuiper, and Olson, 1981, as cited in Folkes, 1988). So, a product failure or a product success that was accompanied by a specific emotion would make it easier to recall than when it was unaccompanied by any emotion. As predicted, results confirmed that risk judgments were related to recall ease, where the probability of product failure was correlated with the ease of retrieving failure incidents but not with the ease of retrieving success incidents, while the probability of product success was correlated with the ease of retrieving success incidents but not with the ease of retrieving failure incidents (See Table below). On the other hand, affect was related only when retrieving product failure incidents. 

To conclude, product performance judgments were biased in ways that were predicted by the availability heuristic – where the role of distinctiveness played an important part in making failure and success incidents more accessible in memory, and thus easier to recall.

So what can marketers do to ensure consumers only remember the good experiences? Companies should focus on their efforts to make successes more distinctive and failures less distinctive, in order to lower the perceptions of product risk (Folkes, 1988). This could be done by having a faster service, catchy advertising slogans, noticeable employee uniforms or product design, a brand name that stands out, to name a few, in order to make an experience with the product more distinctive. I am sure most of us have had to go through a lengthy process just to complain about a product or to get a refund. What can be done is to reduce the delay between the product failure and problem resolution. A restoration that is conducted immediately should receive less attention and be encoded less extensively than one that takes a few days – with this, it would decrease recall ease, making product failures less distinctive as well as lessening consumers’ negative affect (Folkes, 1988).

Based on the findings that Folkes (1988) found above, availability heuristics can influence consumers’ judgments on the uncertainty of a product performance, which is an important part of perceived risk. Therefore, marketers and companies should take extra steps to ensure that consumers would remember more of the successes of their products (and thus, would be more readily available to recall) and less of their failures. Not to forget, customers’ satisfaction is still as important so it must be ensured that every customer is a 100% happy and satisfied with their product. This would definitely make product success more distinctive.

Folkes, V. S. (1988). The availability heuristic and perceived risk. Journal of Consumer research, 15(1), 13-23.

Lichtenstein, S., Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., Layman, M., & Combs, B. (1978). Judged frequency of lethal events. Journal of experimental psychology: Human learning and memory, 4(6), 551.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.

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