New research into how past experience affects consumer choice

December 10, 2004

Consumers are bombarded with choices. Consider a trip to the pharmacy for razors or toilet tissue. Should you buy the 5-pack, the 10-pack, or the 15-pack? Generic versus name brand? What about the two-for-one option? Wait, what about the old reliable?!

Ultimately, these choices are informed by past experience as well as whether we're thinking about the purchase when we're in the store says a study published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

The phenomenon of present consumer decisions being influenced by past choices is known as the Background Contrast Effect. The effect reveals much about how consumers tap into their memories when making choices between products says Joseph Priester, UCLA assistant professor of marketing, and his colleagues. "Surprisingly, little research has examined when and why the Background Contrast Effect influences consumer choice," the authors explain.

In the study, the researchers performed several experiments that tested how and why the Background Contrast Effect manifests itself. The choice in the study was between automotive tire warrantees. The authors conclude that, "the Background Contrast Effect emerges because thoughtful individuals are using context in order to inform their choices."

Curiously, "non-thoughtful" individuals, as they are referred to in the study, "are aware of the trade-off values in the first choice, and yet are not using the information from the trade-off values in making their second choice."
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University of Chicago Press Journals

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