The numbers can be ratings, technical details, supposed representations of quality – it doesn’t seem to matter. In general, bigger is better and the study found that we tend to be swayed by the numbers even when it directly contradicts our experience.
The first test involved megapixels. The authors took a single image, and used Photoshop to create a sharper version, and one with more vivid colors; they told the students that the two versions came from different cameras. When told nothing about the cameras, about 25 percent of the students chose the one that had made the sharper image. But providing a specification reversed that. When told that the other model captured more pixels using a figure based on the diagonal of the sensor, more than half now picked it. When it comes to specs, bigger is better, too, even if the underlying property is the same. Given the value in terms of the total number of pixels captured, the preference for the supposedly high-resolution camera shot up to 75 percent.
The researchers thought this might be a problem with the fact that not everyone is technically minded, so they tried various other experiments with everything from scented oil to ice-cream – all with the same effect.
To quote the researchers “even when consumers can directly experience the relevant products and the specifications carry little or no new information, their preference is still influenced by specifications, including specifications that are self-generated and by definition spurious and specifications that the respondents themselves deem uninformative.”