Send a signal to table three please

Photo by Flickr user Rob Lee. Click for sourceThere’s a brief but interesting article in The New York Times about how we use consumer goods to ‘send signals’ to other people. It illustrates this with a fantastic example and then misses the point. Luckily another recent study on unconscious influences on doctors hits the punchline.

The idea that each product has a meaning and that we use our purchases to construct an identity from the ‘language of brands’ is not completely new, indeed, we’ve covered it before on Mind Hacks, but there’s a nice illustration of this in the most recent NYT article:

Most of us will insist there are other reasons for going to Harvard or buying a BMW or an iPhone — and there are, of course. The education and the products can yield many kinds of rewards. But Dr. Miller says that much of the pleasure we derive from products stems from the unconscious instinct that they will either enhance or signal our fitness by demonstrating intelligence or some of the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

In a series of experiments [pdf], Dr. Miller and other researchers found that people were more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they were first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating.

After this priming, men were more willing to splurge on designer sunglasses, expensive watches and European vacations. Women became more willing to do volunteer work and perform other acts of conspicuous charity — a signal of high conscientiousness and agreeableness, like demonstrating your concern for third world farmers by spending extra for Starbucks’s “fair trade” coffee.

Unfortunately, the article then goes on to say that we may do these things because we try and send signals to others but that people don’t notice because who can really remember whether the guy we met the other day was wearing a designer shirt or not?

The reason this misses the point is that the influence can be both dramatic and entirely conscious as nicely demonstrated by a recent study on doctors that was also reported in the NYT and, ironically, seems to have done unnoticed.

Researchers asked medical students about their attitudes to two blockbuster anticholesterol drugs: Lipitor and it’s competitor, Zocor.

The students were tested in two groups, but in one the researchers incidentally used Lipitor branded pens, clipboards and the like – the typical sort of banal junk that drug companies leave scattered around a typical doctor’s office.

The researchers then tested unconscious associations using the IAT and found that students in the condition where researchers used the branded promotional material had much stronger positive associations with Lipitor.

Interestingly, the students reported no explicit preference for the drug, suggesting that the effect of the branding slipped in under the radar of consciousness. The message got through despite it being not being held as a conscious memory.

Social psychology has taught us that we are more much complex than we can understand at any one moment, but many of those messages still get through.

Link to NYT piece on consumer signalling.
Link to NYT piece on small gifts influencing doctors.
Link to full-text of study.

2 thoughts on “Send a signal to table three please”

  1. “Interestingly, the students reported no explicit preference for the drug, suggesting that the effect of the branding slipped in under the radar of consciousness. The message got through despite it being not being held as a conscious memory.”
    OR, a person could interpret this as evidence that the IAT isn’t particularly diagnostic of attitudes or preferences. At the very least, minute differences in reaction time (which would be quite expected after minute exposure through what essentially amounts to product placement) to a product that already has positive associations due to it being “among the most promoted brand-name statins in the United States (from the article)” hardly qualifies as a “nice demonstration” of the “dramatic” effects of signaling. I also think that signaling of this sort is quite important for interpersonal evaluation, but the outcomes you want are judgment, not reaction time.
    Given how skeptical you are of much of neuroscience data (on which I generally agree w/you), perhaps you should consider whether your support for IAT is warranted in this case, or whether, as in the case of many people’s obsession w/brain data, you have fallen prey to the allure of a sexy method.

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