Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 296
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Perfect Predictor

Researcher explores the limits of attention blocking.

How does a business owner gain a reputation for high quality for his product or service? How does he keep that reputation?

Owners will be quick to reply that they earn this reputation by hard work and attention to detail, but competitors may disagree. Competitors often enter a market confident that their innovations clearly improve upon existing offerings, but they are also often disappointed by the response of their market. Even though their product is clearly higher in quality, they cannot wrestle sufficient market share from the existing brand, and they quietly disappear.

Consider the case of June Todd and her husband Allan.

Allan was June�s high school sweetheart, but graduation separated them. They rekindled their romance at their 25th high school reunion, and soon, June found herself relocating to California. California had many wonderful advantages, but she missed her Val�s pizza. Val�s was the best, and nothing available in her adopted city came close, so one day, Ms. Todd bought a Val�s franchise and opened a little pizza take-out on main street. After a year, she closed, deep in debt and bewildered by her experience. The people didn�t come. The pizza was better, but that didn�t matter. Her husband, Allan, was sympathetic, but he was also sympathetic to the small eateries in town who had held onto their customers. He was the owner of a 100-year old bank that had been started by his great grandfather, and every time a new bank opened in town, he held his breath hoping his customers wouldn�t notice the advantages they offered. So far, so good.

June and Allan have close, first-hand experience with a psychological process that is well known to business researchers. It�s called attention blocking, and it�s largely responsible for both June�s failure and Allan�s success. Here�s how it works.

When consumers make purchasing decisions in a competitive marketplace, they have to make judgments about relative quality, that is, they have to form opinions about the quality of the alternatives available to them. A grocery shopper, for example, facing a display of peas must form a judgment about the quality of the various brands. This judgment is an integral part of making a selection, any selection, but it�s a lot of work. Consumers don�t have enough time or interest to make well-informed relative quality judgments every time they make a purchase, so they take mental shortcuts. Attention blocking is one of them.

With attention blocking, a consumer attaches a �good quality� tag to a specific brand or business, and then he blocks out any further quality information about the entire category of products, including new competitors. Their purchasing decisions reflect it. June couldn�t get people to consider a new place to buy pizza. Allan continued to make a living offering an inferior banking service.

Robert Oxoby, from the University of Calgary, is interested in attention blocking, and he recently completed a series of experiments exploring how it works. Interestingly, he was able to turn it on and turn it off. He was even able to employ it with brand extensions, i.e. unrelated products carrying the same brand name. Business owners interested in taking advantage of attention blocking, like Allan, will be interested in how he did it. Business owners like June, who want to defeat it, will probably be discouraged.

People attach �good quality� tags to products and services when they encounter a perfect predictor about quality. Perfect predictors can come with personal experience, word-of-mouth, expert opinions of others, advertising, or a combination of all four, but the key is that they all agree. At a critical point, a decision is made about quality, and a mental shortcut is established. Many times, this is a permanent decision, and purchasing behavior will reflect it for many years to come. A woman may love her Camry and stick with the Toyota brand for the rest of her life.

Oxoby found that the order in which information is presented to consumers is crucial in forming a perfect predictor. He did it merely by repeating a statement about quality a few times in a pre-learning phase of his experiment, and the statement didn�t even mention a physical attribute relating to quality, only brand name or price. Later in his experiment, when he introduced a second perfect predictor that did describe a physical product feature, his subjects ignored it. But subjects who had not encountered a perfect predictor in the pre-learning phase did notice the physical attribute relating to product quality, and they used it to judge quality.

For business owners like Allan, Oxoby�s findings display the advantage they have in protecting their markets and the opportunities they enjoy extending their brands into new products and services. They must lead with their brand name, and it will block attention to true quality attributes.

For business owners like June, his findings reveal the challenges they face and offer a way to proceed. They must find a way to introduce their offerings as new, so they don�t immediately fall into an existing product category, and they must lead with product attributes that genuinely reflect quality. For example, June could have differentiated her pizza with a place name like Chicago style pizza, and she could have led with a genuine comparison of a product feature like the ounces of meat or cheese on her pizza.

Attention blocking is a barrier for some and a blessing for others. Thanks to Robert Oxoby, we now know a little more about it.

Reference: Oxoby, Robert J. and Hugh Finnigan (2007) Developing Heuristic-Based Quality Judgments: Blocking in Consumer Choice. Psychology & Marketing, 24(4), 295-313.

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