Consumers may think they’re using logic and data to make choices about safety products like airbags and vaccines, but emotion is really the driving force behind those decisions. That’s according to new research from Associate Professor of Marketing Andrew Gershoff, published last week by the Journal of Consumer Research and featured on Time.com’s Healthland.
“People rely on airbags, smoke detectors, and vaccines to make them safe,” wrote Gershoff and Koehler,a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “Unfortunately, vaccines do sometimes cause disease and airbags sometimes injure or kill. But just because these devices aren’t perfect doesn’t mean consumers should reject them outright.”
In one of the study’s experiments, subjects were offered two options in cars. The authors describe this experiment:
“For one of the cars, participants were told that scientific crash tests indicate that there is a 2% chance that drivers who are in a serious accident (in this car) will be killed due to the impact of the crash. This was the higher overall risk option and it was not associated with any risk of safety product. For the other car, participants were told that scientific crash tests indicate there is a 1% chance that drivers who are in serious accidents risk death due to the impact of the crash and that drivers of this car faced an additional one chance in 10,000 risk of death.” The participants were then told that the risk of death in the second car was caused by “trauma caused by the force of the airbag deployment” or by the possibility that the airbag didn’t open.
The study results indicate that rational behavior doesn’t always hold sway when perceived betrayal occurs. According to the authors, “Most people selected inferior products (car with a 2% death rate in an accident) over those that were associated with a slim chance of betrayal (airbag failure or injury).” But when the betrayal risk was removed from the product the choice was reversed, with most people choosing the product with the lowest risk. They also tended to pick the lowest risk choice when choosing for someone other than themselves.
According to Professors Gershoff and Koehler, “The findings show that people have strong emotional reactions when safety devices have even a very small potential to betray them. So rather than weighing the costs and benefits, they will reject these options outright, even if it makes them worse off for doing so.”
The authors conclude that the five studies “provide the first empirical evidence for people’s special aversion to harm” that is a product of betrayal. “If our positive expectation that agents of protection will do no harm is undermined, risk and uncertainty appear where we once believed protection was assured.”
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