Most of us don’t ever meet or know about the people who make the goods we buy. We shop in corporate chains or order clothing and even food online, requiring little to no human interaction. What effect does this have on our consumer experience? Is there an effect on the experience of producers?
Among many, varied projects in the field of consumer psychology, Stijn M.J. van Osselaer, Johnson Graduate School of Management, has been working to understand the relationship between consumers and producers and how technology could help improve it.
Knowing the Producer, Knowing the Consumer
Since the Industrial Revolution, van Osselaer says that with modern technology, more and more there’s been a separation between producer and consumer. “What we’ve found is that this separation deprives us to some extent from meaning in the production and the consumption,” he says.
It makes us happier to know who makes the products we’re consuming, and the producers feel more fulfilled when they know for whom they’re producing, van Osselaer explains. He and his collaborators have found this to be true in a number of experiments, approaching the question from different angles.
“What we’ve found is that this separation deprives us to some extent from meaning in the production and the consumption.”
In one experiment, a museum in Vienna gave van Osselaer and collaborators a room in an exhibit on handmade products. He asked participants at the museum to make paper ornaments. In some cases, he asked them to sign their names to their work and in others, not. Participants felt more invested and fulfilled when they were represented by their signatures and when they knew for whom the product was made. They also made nicer ornaments.
In another experiment, van Osselaer used an online labor market run by Amazon called Mechanical Turk, where remote workers get paid to do certain tasks. He asked workers to draw five aliens—a classic exercise in creativity research. “With aliens, the further removed from a person the drawing is, the more creative,” van Osselaer says. “We found that they made more creative aliens when they signed their names to their work.”
On the consumer side, van Osselaer has done studies where consumers get a short description of the person who made their product versus a control group that did not. In one such study, participants preferred cookies baked by someone they knew something about, saying they tasted better, even though they were not better cookies.
Another experiment made use of two cafes at Cornell to test what van Osselaer calls the Starbucks effect. For some consumers, the barista called out numbers when orders were ready. For others, the barista called out the name of the consumer. When names were called, consumers felt they were treated with more humanity, as individuals, rather than as faceless sources of profit.
If technology has been a part of what’s caused this divide between consumers and producers, van Osselaer says it can also be a part of the solution. He uses Domino’s Pizza as an example. When customers order online, they can track the making of their pizza and even see and know the name of the employee who’s preparing the order. There’s also an opportunity to give feedback directly to that person.
“So now we’re looking at simple ways you can make producing and consuming more personal again,” van Osselaer says. “We hope that will increase the meaningfulness of both production and consumption.”
Consumer Decision-Making and Self Esteem
Often led to topics by his students’ interests, van Osselaer has various projects. Much of his research aims to understand the psychology behind why consumers make certain choices.
In one line of research, he looks at the types of information companies give about their products and how that influences consumer decision-making. In another he tries to understand how self-esteem affects consumer choices, finding that people with lower self-esteem tend to buy lower quality products.
In a project related to self-esteem, van Osselaer studies the behavior of low self-esteem consumers when they receive bad service. Economists have argued that the best consumer protection strategy is to give consumers lots of choices and reduce impediments to shift from one service provider to another. If a customer is treated badly, they can easily take their business elsewhere. But consumers with low self-esteem are less likely to make that switch after receiving bad service.
“This basically tells us that providing people with options and reducing switching costs is not enough,” van Osselaer says. “We may have to do more, in terms of checking on and regulating companies in order to protect those consumers against being treated badly.”
Research and Personal Interests
With a long-term interest in psychology, van Osselaer says that it’s in his blood. “Practically everybody in my family is a psychologist,” he explains.
He gravitated towards academia versus the private sector because he liked doing research and because of the freedom of an academic life. “There’s a lot of independence, and you get to do research on whatever you want. That’s amazing,” he says. “On the other hand, your work is never quite done. You could always be making it better.”
Some of what he likes about Cornell relates to his research; he likes to be at a place that produces things. “I like the fact that the trees in my front yard are Cornell-designed trees, bred by Cornell; and we make our own maple syrup, very good, and ice cream. I like that aspect of the school tremendously,” he says. “I like the breadth and lack of pretense and arrogance. And I get to work with amazing people both in the classroom and in the research. It’s a great job and a great place to be.”