A people focus for better consumer science
Consumer science, policy and law usually assume that consumers are purely rational decision-makers. An EU-funded project has challenged that assumption. It has trained early-career researchers to study the impact of emotional factors on human decision-making, to help consumers make choices that are better for their well-being.
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Good decision-making skills can make all the difference to consumers well-being. With the right choices, they can be healthier, see their money go further and have a cleaner, more sustainable environment.
As many people know from their own experience, the purely rational best choice is not always the one made. The EU-funded CONCORT project investigated how to improve the fledgling science of consumer behaviour, for better consumer policy and to empower consumers to choose more wisely.
It trained 14 early-career researchers to study consumer competence the knowledge and skills consumers use to make choices in a complex economy. Their research showed that neither the classical view that consumers base their choices on a purely rational analysis of options, nor the behavioural view that they are prompted by suggestion and pre-existing biases, are adequate descriptions of consumer behaviour on their own. Each can help shape it in certain circumstances.
Our goal was to provide data and conclusions which are of real interest to todays customers, says project coordinator Siegfried Dewitte of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. We proposed a middle ground, where consumers are not optimally rational but where many so-called weaknesses can be considered as strengths and can be shaped to enhance well-being.
CONCORT achieved its aims through its training programme, in which the trainee researchers each carried out a project to test theories on what influences consumer choice within a specific theme. Typical themes were exercise habits, food choices or overspending.
We focused on understanding the broad process by which consumers judge, decide and choose, says Dewitte.
Some project results supported the classical view of consumer decision-making. For example, one confirmed that consumers make poorer decisions when they are very emotional.
Others contradicted the assumption that information is always helpful; too much advance information can reduce enjoyment of a holiday for some, alienate consumers from a product in other cases.
Research on influencing behaviour and improving consumer skills also suggested avenues for policy strategies that are alternatives to simple information campaigns. One trainee found that putting unhealthy food at a distance decreased its consumption. This directly affects behaviour without affecting attitudes or beliefs, says Dewitte.
Other researchers found out that belief in free will can support consumer decision making. Even simple tricks can help consumers control their choices. Dewitte highlights a project that found that people can better resist products promoted in funny advertisements by stopping themselves from laughing.
Consumer science is still developing as an independent discipline. CONCORT brought together business schools, universities, businesses and a consumer organisation, BEUC, to strengthen the science. It has developed a theoretical foundation of ideas from the various disciplines that touch on consumer behaviour, moved away from a strict focus on changing behaviour to widen its scope and shown how to exploit advanced behaviour measurement technologies.
For the academic world, it has contributed to a new training programme that combines traditional training methods (conventions, in-house doctoral courses) with innovative learning styles (blended learning, skills portfolio) and practical experience in secondments.
Eight trainees have qualified for a PhD for their work in the project, while six are in the final stages of this process. Several have found work in academia or market research, where they can share insights from CONCORT. The projects results have also been published in academic journals and presented at consumer science conferences.
Dewitte is encouraged by the strong start. He confirms that he, some of the trainee researchers and their research centres are continuing CONCORTs work along all its major lines of study.