Panic and the Diversification Effect

A lot’s been written of late on the issue of panic buying and hoarding during the current Covid19 crisis. Most of it concerns why people are behaving in this way, but the reasons are pretty obvious. It’s just an inevitable response to our primitive Survival instincts being heightened as we see competition for resources apparently (if wrongly) intensify. A much more interesting question to me, however, and one that has received rather less attention is the issue of whatpeople panic buy. From hand-sanitisers to toilet rolls, the actual items being hoarded vary in how logical they are. So what’s going on here?

There are a lot of psychological factors that can explain what items people choose to hoard, so I wouldn’t wish to over-simplify things, but it occurs to me that there is one particular effect that has received little attention but could be quite important here.

The diversification effect (Read & Lowenstein, 1995) occurs when individuals are buying multiple items simultaneously to consume at a later date. We’ve probably all experienced this at different times, but common examples would include situations where we are buying things ready for a summer vacation or stocking up the home ready for the Christmas holidays. We have all found in circumstances such as these that we can get a little carried away and somehow we seem to end up with things that we never actually use.

As the name suggests, we are prone to the diversification effect when the items we are buying for future use are very varied. Scenes of emptying shelves in supermarkets in the media prompted many people to rush to the shops themselves and stock up on all sorts of things they “might need” if the crisis worsened or they were forced into a period of self-isolation. Some have argued it’s simply a herd mentality, but the clue that diversification is involved here lies in the nature of the items filling those shopping carts.

When the diversification effect takes hold, products purchased fall into two main categories. First there are the virtues, the things we should by such as healthy foods or everyday hygiene products. Then there are the vices, the “naughty treats” we allow ourselves for being good with our other purchases. These latter goods are rather like the slice of cake we allow ourselves as a reward for a good hour in the gym!

Sub-optimal behaviour under diversification leads to a curious mix of vices and virtues being purchased as we have a tendency to over-estimate our need for variety. What we are seeing now, however, is a rather more optimal form of diversification as supermarket sales data suggest we are buying far more virtues than we are vices. We are buying a greater variety of goods at present than we normally do, but most are very sensible practical things with just a few nice treats thrown in for good measure.

Put another way, our survival mechanisms are motivating us to gather extra resources and follow the herd, but the diversification effect is ensuring we broaden our horizons in terms of the range of products and brands we now consider and, by and large, we go for mainly very sensible goods with just a few random treats thrown in. This is why many of us are stocking up on toilet rolls and long-life milk, but few cases have been reported of consumers manically hoarding cream cakes and avocados!

Social Distancing… for Dogs?

One of the great pluses of the UK’s current sort-of-lockdown is the chance to spend more time with my border collie Martha (pictured). She lies quite content by my side while I work in my home office, appearing somewhat bemused, and is not adverse to making an impromptu vocal contribution to any online class or meeting. There’s something comforting about the presence of our oldest companions, isn’t there, and others clearly feel the same as sales and rehoming of dogs are both experiencing a boom. But how exactly do dogs make us feel better, and what’s in it for them?

Dogs are probably the oldest animal we humans have domesticated. According to the Canine Cooperation Hypothesis, their high social-attentiveness and tolerance made dogs the ideal candidate to evolve traits for both cooperation and companionship, aiding us for thousands of years in our hunting and gathering. Over the centuries, they gradually adopted a new role, that of a sort of furry mental health practitioner, providing comfort and reassurance when times are bad. That’s particularly important at present with many of us experiencing enforced solitude, physically detached from our normal human social networks through isolation. The presence of a dog doesn’t just give us someone to talk to and a reason for maintaining a routine, it also has a very positive effect arising from our brain’s accompanying responses. Patting a dog in particular can generate positive emotional responses, stimulating the release of the hormone oxytocin which makes us feel relaxed, reduces stress and anxiety, and is exactly the same neurohormonal response a parent experiences when making eye-contact with their newborn child. No wonder Battersea Dogs Home has seenrehoming more than doublesince the Covid-19 crisis began!

Although some people are sniffy about the notion of dogs experiencing emotions too, however, the science tells us the human-canine bond really is two-way traffic. Studies have found many dogs (including my own Martha) prefer attention and interaction to other forms of reward, including food and other treats. More interestingly, although even the largest canine brain is barely the size of a lemon, it has a caudate nucleus pretty much the same as ours, it releases oxytocin and the pleasure transmitter dopamine when we pat or interact with the dog, and it generally produces the same calming relaxing sensations in our four-legged companions as we experience ourselves.

And here’s the rub when it comes to the Covid-19 situation… mere proximity is enough to trigger that response in Martha, which is why she will happily lie near my desk while i’m at work on my computer, but only if she is way closer than current human personal space recommendations mandated by the government. Put another way, social distancing doesn’t cut any ice with dogs, i’m afraid! If we want them to make us feel calm and happy, we need to let them feel calm and happy too, and that for a dog is way closer than any two metres. Just as well the science is also telling us that this is much safer than being with another human.

So there we are. Dogs make us feel good in the current pandemic lockdown and we in return are – at least neurologically speaking – doing pretty much the same for them. This perhaps explains why so many are now turning to canine companionship in their hour of need. Let’s hope though that the bond isn’t a transient one, but the start of a lasting relationship. A dog is for life, not just for Covid-19 folks!

Scent of a (wo-)man?

Having trouble sleeping? Forget taking the Nytol or those irksome Melatonin supplements to help you get a good night’s rest. Seems all you need to do is sniff a dirty t-shirt! Well, not just anyone’s t-shirt, of course…  Psychologists have long known that scent plays an important role in sexual attraction. Particular scents determine who we find attractive and when, for instance, and those of us with a keener sense of smell typically report better quality intercourse.

There is even evidence that the decline in olfactory abilities associated with smoking reduces the number of orgasms a woman experiences. And when it comes to long-term relationships, the scent of one’s partner is sufficient to reduce feelings of anxiety and the physiological responses associated with stress. New research published by Hofer and Chen in Psychological Sciencetakes our understanding of the effects of a partner’s scent a step further by exploring the impact it can have on sleep patterns and quality. In a very well-designed set of experiments, the authors found that simply sleeping with a partner’s worn t-shirt was enough to increase sleep in participants experiencing disruptions to sleep patterns, when compared with control participants sleeping with either a clean t-shirt or, perhaps bizarrely, one worn by an unidentified third-party. The increase in length of sleep was accompanied by a linear increase in melatonin in the brain, suggesting that the scent itself was exerting its effect via a corresponding normal response. Most interestingly, most participants could correctly identify their partner’s scent 70% of the time, though simply telling someone that scent was that of the partner was enough to fool some participants some of the time.

Why does this happen? It’s not a particularly surprising finding when considered in the light of evolutionary theory. The presence of a partner in a pair-bonded relationship reduces stress and anxiety through the sense of security it brings, those emotional responses being triggered by a whole range of hormonal effects. It’s therefore perfectly logical that melatonin production would be one of those hormonal effects. Moreover, significant sex differences were observed among the sample, women experiencing a larger increase in both duration and quality of sleep than men – an effect consistent with the higher sense of security women report a stable relationship brings in comparison to men.

So where does this leave those if us who have trouble sleeping and are prone to spending far too much money on often-ineffective over-the-counter remedies? Well, all we need is a partner willing to let us cuddle up to their dirty t-shirt for the night and this will do far more good than any pill or potion. Oh, and if they happen to be up-to-date with their laundry and don’t have one to hand, many of us will be fooled if they give us someone else’s and just pretend it is theirs!

Mmmmnnnn… best not ask where it came from though, eh?

Eat your greens!

I guess it’s one of those cliches all around the world, isn’t it?  Families sitting round the dining table (ok, probably the TV or something), parents desperately trying to convince protesting kids to eat their greens because they’re good for them, they’ll make them big and strong, they taste yummy… You get the idea. Rarely works, not even when the manufacturers helpfully supply potatoes shaped like Daleks, goldfish or Katy Perry. Hopeless!

Research by Maimaran and Fishbach in the  Journal of Consumer Research, however, sheds a little more light on what might be going on here;  why can we very rarely sell fruit and vegetables and other healthy stuff to our children?  The problem appears to be that we try too hard or, in fact, that we are actually trying at all.  In an innovative set of experiments, the researchers found that telling children to eat their greens because they are good for them had very little effect at all, whereas trying to convince them that they tasted good fared only slightly better.  By far the best strategy appeared to be to say, well, nothing at all, but just dump them on the plate.  Consumption of a range of healthy foods was at its highest when the children were simply given their meal and left to get on with it!

Why should this be the case, I wonder?  Well, probably the best explanation, also hinted at by the authors, is what I like to call “proposition overload”.  In marketing, we are constantly striving to provide customers with a unique set of value propositions, something that makes this run-of-the-mill hatchback car better than that almost-identical one parked next to it.  Sometimes, we simply try to hard and offer too many value propositions from a single product, so the consumer faces information overload and the propositions themselves become diluted.  This appears to be what’s going on when parents try to persuade their reluctant children to eat healthy foods; they try so hard with all the potential virtues that the messages become confused and the real value to the child is lost.

And the message for marketers here generally?  Don’t overdo the value propositions you are trying to sell to your customers.  This may well be an Internet-enabled games console, with built-in television, coffee-maker and baby monitor, but much better to describe it simply as the “latest entertainment system” if you want  to achieve higher sales!

How to Sell After Shave to Men

Spring is coming and, indeed, this weekend marks the start of British Summer Time, which is traditionally also a good period for those marketing luxury brands to men. Studies have found that Google searches for luxury products increase as daylight hours get longer, peaking in mid-June with the longest day. The effect is particularly strong when it comes to those brands associated with attracting the opposite sex, such as after shave and cologne.

The reason behind this spike in male interest for such products lies in our evolutionary past. For a whole host of reasons, from climatic conditions to simple safety, conception rates across the world are highest in the Summer months and lowest in the Winter, a phenomenon directly linked to daylight hours, known more formally as the photoperiod effect in evolutionary psychology. Males are especially sensitive to this environmental cue of fertility and unconsciously respond more favourably to brands tapping into this bias in their marketing content.

Photoperiod effects are very easy to demonstrate experimentally. El Hazourri (2016) and his colleagues, for instance, found that simply priming experimental participants with sentence completion tasks relating to the seasons enhanced men’s subsequent evaluations of luxury products, but had no significant impact on women. My own work has found similar results in relation to advertising, as depicted in the accompanying illustration. Both mock ads for Boss after shave were rated positively by both male and female participants, but the ad on the left had a markedly stronger effect on males in the study due to its mid-day sun background image.

So there we are… Want to sell more of a luxury product to men? Just make sure the image you used was taken in daylight, especially if your product is associated with attracting a mate!