Selling disgust

An article in Time magazine discusses how an understanding of the psychology of disgust is being applied to selling products and the arrangement of items in supermarkets.

One key finding has been that disgust is heavily linked to ideas of contamination and this holds even when there’s no risk – just the idea is enough.

For example, people are less likely to want to put a plastic spoon in their mouth that has touched fake plastic vomit, despite the fact that it is no more risky than putting a spoon in your mouth that has touched other plastic spoons in the packet.

Psychologists Andrea Morales and Gavan Fitzsimons has discovered that this principle applies to consumer products that are linked to things that can trigger disgust – rubbish bags, nappies, toilet paper and so on.

Crucially, the contamination principal works here, so people view things less favourably that have been near these products.

Strong preferences were just what the subjects exhibited. Any food that touched something perceived to be disgusting became immediately less desirable itself, though all of the products were in their original wrapping. The appeal of the food fell even if the two products were merely close together; an inch seemed to be the critical distance. “It makes no sense if you think about it,” says Fitzsimons. More irrationally still, the subjects were less comfortable with a transparent package than an opaque one, as if it somehow had greater power to leak contamination. Whatever the severity of the taint, the result was predictable…

“More and more stores organize products by category,” says Morales, “so you have a baby aisle, for example, with diapers and wipes and baby food all together.” Supermarkets might want to rethink that arrangement.

Link to Time article ‘The Science of Disgust’.

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