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Prior Experience Shapes How Consumers Compute New Information

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Over time, consumers develop a set of cues that we then use to make inferences about products, such as “all French restaurants have great service” or “more expensive candles smell better.” However, this set of predictable beliefs can make it difficult for us to learn and recognize other real, positive qualities that are indicated by the same cues, reveals a new study.

“Once people learned that a cue predicted an outcome, they became less likely to learn about this very same cue with respect to a different outcome,” write Marcus Cunha Jr. (University of Washington), Chris Janiszewski, and Juliano Laran (both University of Florida). “The implication is that the learning system is designed to discourage single cue–multiple outcome learning.”

In the pilot study of a series of five experiments, the researchers used cheese tasting to explore the development of predictive knowledge structures, a phenomenon also known as “protection of prior learning.” They first had participants taste an orange rind Raclette cheese that was mild and creamy, and a purple rind Drunken Goat cheese that was much stronger tasting and dry. They then had participants rate the cheeses on a scale of mild to strong to induce the association with an orange rind and a mild flavored cheese. A control group also tasted two different types of cheese but did not rate them.

To test whether an association between an orange rind and mild flavor would make it more difficult for consumers to gauge other existing qualities, such as texture, tasters were then asked to rate the creaminess of a mild, creamy Port Salut with an orange rind and a dry Manchego with no rind. Surprisingly, participants were less likely than the control group to expect the second orange rind cheese to be creamy, even though the first one had also been creamy. As the researchers explain, “Learning that the orange rind predicted a difference in the strength of flavor . . . attenuated the learning that the orange rind predicted creaminess.”

This research has important implications for marketers, policy makers and consumers. For instance, the researchers point to Merck’s introduction of the cholesterol-lowering drug Simvastatin under the brand name Zocor. Recently, researchers found that Simvastatin may be also effective at preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“This opportunity creates a branding dilemma for Merck,” the researchers write. “Our findings suggest that consumers may be slower to learn the Alzheimer’s relief association to [Zocor] than to a new brand name.”

Similarly, from a public policy standpoint, the results suggest that people may be resistant to adopt new health and safety standards when information conflicts with prior learning. Beyond creating awareness, successful campaigns might present new information in a way that does not utilize attributes already associated with another outcome.

Journal of Consumer Research, Page 000–000, DOI: 10.1086/523293 Electronically published October 10, 2007

Marcus Cunha Jr. Chris Janiszewski Juliano Laran, John Deighton served as editor and Susan Broniarczyk served as associate editor for this article.
As a product category evolves, consumers have the opportunity to learn a series of feature-benefit associations. Initially, consumers learn that some features predict a critical benefit, whereas other features do not. Subsequently, consumers have the opportunity to assess if previously predictive features, or novel features, predict new product benefits. Surprisingly, later learning is characterized by attenuated learning about previously predictive features relative to novel features. This tendency to ignore previously predictive features is consistent with a desire to protect prior learning.

Written by huehueteotl

February 18, 2008 at 11:28 am

Posted in Psychology

Tagged with , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. I had been reading the Igor Ledochowski’s conversational hypnosis and the ideas expressed here are quite in resonance with the program. It also talks about how advertisers and media create the demand for certain products even though there is no real tangible benefits from them. Like the hair dye market for young guys and girls. They don’t need dye in first place but once the media sets in the trend – rest follow. Its all about how you hit your consumers at the unconscious levels.

  2. …not that we need hypnosis more than hair dye, but indeed, the parallels in subliminal messaging do exist 😉


    February 19, 2008 at 11:16 pm

  3. hehe yeh the world is a marketplace!

    but I hope the message is conveyed 🙂

  4. […] Prior experience shapes how customers treat new information? […]

    Decision making | friedom

    February 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

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