Weighing Positive and Negative Impacts on Users

First published January 31, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We humans hate loss. In fact, we seem to value losing something about twice as high as gaining something. For example, imagine I gave you a coffee cup and then offered to buy it back from you. That’s scenario 1. In scenario 2, I ask you to buy the same coffee cup from me. The price you assign to the coffee cup in the first scenario will be, on the average, about twice as much as in the second. And yes, there’s research to back this up.

When it comes to winning and losing, it’s been proven that “loss looms larger than gains.” It’s just one of the weird glitches in our logical circuitry.  We tend to be hardwired to look at glasses as half empty.

Recently, I was reviewing an academic study done in 2008, with this scintillating title: “Procedural Priming and Consumer Judgment: Effects on the Impact of Positively and Negatively Valenced Information” by Shen and Wyer. If you can get beyond the rather dry title, you find a treasure trove of tidbits to consider when crafting your online user experience.

For example, when we evaluate a product for potential purchase, we may run across both positive and negative information. The order we run into this information can have a dramatic impact on what we do downstream from that interaction. To use psychological terms, it “primes” our mental framework.  And, because we tend to focus on negatives, less favorable information has a greater impact on our decision than positive information.

But it’s not just that we pay more attention to bad news than good news. It’s that bad news can hijack the entire consideration process. According to Shen and Wyer, if we run into negative information, it can change our information-seeking strategies, leading us down further negatively biased channels to confirm the initial information we saw. Bad news tends to lead to more bad news.

Also, we can get “bad news” hangovers. If we compare negatives in one decision process, that negative mental framework can carry over to an entirely different decision that has nothing to do with the first, giving us a heightened awareness of negative information in the new situation.

Here’s another interesting finding. If we’re rushed for time, this preoccupation with the negatives will dramatically affect the decision we make. But, if we have all the time in the world, the impact is relatively insignificant. Given time, we seem to cancel out our inherently negative biases.

All this news is not bad for marketers, however. It seems that simply getting users to state their preference for one feature over another, even though they’re not actively considering purchase at that time, leads to a much greater likelihood of purchase in the future. It seems that if you can get users to compare alternatives — and, more importantly, to commit to saying they prefer one alternative over another — they clear the mental hurdle of deciding “will I buy?” and instead start considering  “what will I buy?”

Finally, there is also a recency effect, especially if prospects had ample time to consider all their alternatives. Shen and Wyer found that the last information considered seemed to have the greatest effect on the buyer.  So, if information was both positive and negative, it was good to get the least favorable information in front of the prospect early, and then move to the most favorable information. Again, this is true only if the user had plenty of time to weigh the options. If they were rushed, the opposite was true.

All in all, these are all intriguing concepts to consider when crafting an ideal online user experience. They also underscore the importance of first impressions, especially negative ones.

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