Knowing What You Need Begins with Knowing Yourself

Katherine A. Burson, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, USA

Overview of the Research

Consumers don’t really know what products they need. They attempt to use self-assessments as a guide for what products to buy, but have little idea about how their skills and abilities compare to those of other consumers. That means that, when they choose products intended for particular skill levels, they are often not getting what they intended to buy.

In two experiments I show that trivial manipulations of people’s perceptions of their relative ability can change what products they believe they should buy. In one study, for example, half of the participants putted a golf ball from 10 feet and the other half putted from three feet. Those putting a shorter distance, not surprisingly, were able to sink more putts than those putting a long distance. What was surprising was that participants putting a shorter distance thought they were better golfers in general than those putting a long distance, despite the transparency of the ease or difficulty of the task. Furthermore, they used these biased self-assessments as a cue for product choice: Those who had putted from three feet thought they should buy higher-end golf equipment than those putting from 10 feet. In another experiment, half of the participants answered tricky photography questions while the other half answered simple questions. Not being able to answer many questions made the first group believe they were below-average photographers and to prefer lower-tier cameras. The other group, however, easily answered most questions, inferred that they were above-average photographers, and preferred more advanced cameras.

Why does the difficulty of a task experienced by a consumer influence his product choice? This research shows that the participants try to “match” themselves to products. Consumers assume that manufacturers of products in many domains—from sports equipment to cooking utensils—produce different levels of options for consumers of different skill levels. The “basic” mixer is intended for beginner bakers while the “professional” mixer is intended for experienced bakers. All that remains is to determine one’s own skill level compare to those of other consumers.

Unfortunately, accurate self-assessment is actually quite difficult for most people, and this means matching can lead to poor product choices. People tend to rely on cues about their performance that don’t incorporate impressions of others and are therefore misleading. Hence, when a task feels difficult, for instance, people tend to assume that task is uniquely difficult for them, and therefore they are below-average. These consumers unreasonably assume that they should buy products that are intended for below-average users. In other words, because they aren’t able rank themselves accurately, consumers end up choosing the wrong level product for themselves.

Significance of the Research

This research shows that people infer their relative standing from non-indicative performances, yet go on to use those inferences as a guide for product choice. These results are especially significant because consumers of all skill levels appear to be equally susceptible to this bias: Actual ability plays little if any role in the accuracy of assessments of ability, and thus the accuracy of product choice (Burson, Larrick, and Klayman 2006). In fact, in the experiments described above, actual relative performance does not predict product choice. That means that even relatively experienced photographers and golfers were lead astray by the difficulty of the tasks they encountered.

Implications of the Research for Marketers

As retailers race to improve the in-store experience for consumers by providing opportunities to try-out products, they may unintentionally be misleading customers about their relative standings. For instance, in a sporting goods store, the climbing wall is certainly smaller and easier to climb than a real mountain, the putting green is flatter and shorter than a real golf course, and the basketball hoop is not guarded by a rival team. The research presented here suggests that, if these trials are indeed fairly easy, retailers may inadvertently encourage inflated perceptions of ability among their customers. The consequences of these misperceptions range from frustration with an overly advanced product to actual physical injury. Whether over- or under-buying, the retailer must consider the repercussions of dissatisfied customers on their future sales.

Fortunately for practitioners, the accuracy of consumers’ self-assessments is observable. Retailers can view a consumer putting on an in-store putting green or probe consumers’ photography knowledge in order to assess both their true standing and the right products for them. Then, they can guide the customer toward the product she should be choosing. An experienced salesperson has seen the whole spectrum of consumers—from beginner to professional—and can therefore estimate their standing more accurately.

Original Article:

Burson, Katherine A. (2007), “Consumer-Product Skill Matching: The Effects of Difficulty on Relative Self-Assessment and Choice,” Journal of Consumer Research, 34 (June), 104-110.

Another Relevant Source:

Burson, Katherine A., Richard P. Larrick, and Joshua Klayman (2006), “Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions of Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90 (1), 60–77.