Consumers differ in desire for explanation, says new CU-Brown University study

The depth of explanation about novel products influences consumer preferences and willingness to pay, according to a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder and Brown University.

When it comes to descriptions about the functions of new and unusual goods -- such as a self-watering plant system, special gloves for touchscreens or an eraser for wall scratches -- some people prefer minimal details. Dubbed “explanation foes” in the study, they gain a strong sense of understanding and desire for products through shallow explanations.

In contrast, other people -- dubbed “explanation fiends” in the study -- derive desire for products from deep and detailed explanations.

“There are these two different types of consumers,” said lead author Phil Fernbach, assistant professor of marketing at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. “On these two sides, consumers differ in the amount of detail that makes them feel like they understand and -- because of that feeling of understanding -- the amount of detail that will make them prefer a product.”

A paper on the subject was published online today in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Researchers say the study results can help consumers make better decisions.

“We’re not making a value judgment on whether it’s better to be an ‘explanation foe’ or ‘fiend,’ ” said Fernbach. “You don’t have to want to know how stuff works, but make sure that your intuition about whether you understand a product is based on objective information and not just a feeling.”

In one part of the study, participants were given varying explanations of a new tinted food wrapper product. “Explanation foes” highly rated their understanding and preference for the item when they read a simple description of how its “white coloring protects food from light that causes it to spoil, thereby keeping food fresh for longer.”

“Explanation fiends” highly rated their understanding and preference for the food wrapper when they read a more detailed description of how “atoms in the tinting agent oscillate when hit by light waves causing them to absorb the energy and reflect it back rather than reaching food, where it would break the bonds holding amino acids together, thereby keeping food fresh for longer.”

The study also found that “explanation foes,” who are more common, tend to have an inflated sense of understanding about novel products. Their heightened perception disappears and their willingness to pay decreases when they attempt to explain how a product works.

Conversely, “explanation fiends” tend to have a more conservative sense of understanding about novel products. For them, attempting to explain how a product works does not have a negative effect on their sense of understanding and their opinion of the product stays the same or increases, according to the study.

Attitudes toward explanation were predicted by a cognitive reflection test that measures how much people naturally engage in deliberative thinking. Each test question elicits an intuitive but incorrect answer and participants who impulsively respond tend to err. These participants are the “explanation foes” who prefer less explanation.

In contrast, those who inhibit their initial responses to the cognitive reflection test and think more deeply tend to correctly answer. These participants are the “explanation fiends” who prefer more in-depth descriptions.

While the study can help consumers with better decision-making, it also yields advice for marketers.

“Marketers should target these different consumer groups with different types of explanations,” said Steven Sloman, a study co-author and professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University.

Robert St. Louis and Julia Shube also were co-authors of the study. They were undergraduate students at Brown during the research. Unilever, a consumer goods company, supported the study.  

For more information about CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business visit http://leeds.colorado.edu/.

Contacts

Phil Fernbach
philip.fernbach@colorado.edu
Elizabeth Lock, CU media relations, 303-492-3117
elizabeth.lock@colorado.edu

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