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Peering into the minds of consumers

Busy marketing research test center combines psychology, business

February 15, 2016

So much consumer research boils down to “would you buy this product or not?”

But at the Behavioral Research Lab, the inquiry is much deeper: What social group do you identify with? What would prod you to recycle an item? Does this brand make you feel good?

The lab, part of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, sees “consume” as much more than buying stuff, according to the lab's director, Kevin Cosgrove.

“It starts with your idea to buy a product. And if you buy something, how do you dispose of it?” Cosgrove said.

“All of that is consumer behavior.”

The lab studies delve deeply into psychological variables. For instance, one researcher is exploring what happens if an item is “too pretty” to use.

“People have a desire to have the product but they don’t like the idea of using it and destroying it,” Cosgrove said. Making a product too pretty could decrease consumption of it. An example? Pretty toilet paper might cause people to use less, creating less waste.

“Most people think we’re about ads and commercials, but it’s so much more than that,” said Cosgrove, whose degree is in psychology.

“It’s a marriage of psychology and consumerism.”

Measuring responses

The Behavioral Research Lab produces prodigious amounts of data: more than 200 experiments totaling 14,000 hours of research last year. Every semester, about 1,100 people participate.

The lab dates back to 2010, when faculty members would periodically clear out a training room, set up cardboard partitions and bring in people to take online surveys.

Now the facility has expanded to a spacious collection of offices with a computer lab, space for “experiential” research and a room for the lab’s newest venture — virtual reality.

Much of the data is produced by student volunteersAnyone can participate. Cosgrove will sometimes recruit the W. P. Carey staff to come in to do a survey. He has also expanded the pool to online students and people at the other campuses. who come in for an hour at a time and fill out surveys online, sometimes watching a video. They participate in as many studies as they can during that hour, anywhere from one to five.

Occasionally, the lab workers will venture onto campus to recruit participants — usually during finals week at the bookstore — and a few experiments will pay students, usually around $8 for an hour or so.

Some of the studies are “experiential,” with the research assistants doing role play, in which they follow a scripted scenario to gauge a participant’s response.

Cosgrove said that most universities don’t have the resources to do such labor-intensive research.

“(Other labs) will say, ‘Imagine you’re with a stranger and it made you feel uncomfortable,’ whereas we actually have you interact with a stranger,” he said.

The lab is a great tool for recruiting faculty, according to Amy OstromOstrom also is a professor of marketing and holds the PetSmart Chair in Services Leadership., chairman of the Department of Marketing at W. P. Carey, who hired two assistant professors recently whose research focuses on consumer behavior.

"The lab enables faculty to conduct rigorous and complex experiments as well as run a large number of studies," she said.

Also unusual for a university, the lab hires undergraduates as research assistants, allowing them to get hands-on training in experiments.

Michelle Daniels is a doctoral studentShe is pursuing a PhD in consumer behavior. who started working in the lab as a research assistant while an undergraduate. She has found the experiential studies to be fascinating. One involved the perception of “scarcity” and how it promotes aggressive behavior. In another, a group of subjects was shown an advertisement that said the first 100 people to participate would get a free prize, and a second group was shown an ad that said the first three people to join would get a free prize.

“And then we made them do a boxing challenge on the Wii,” Daniels said. “And the group that saw the ad for the ‘first three people’ actually tried to punch harder.”

The lab is now jumping into cutting-edge virtual-reality research, Cosgrove said. Users wear goggles and view virtual-reality content while the lab measures their responses.

“We’re trying to find baseline data, how their responses compare to the real world and video, so people can build off of that in marketing,” he said. “Virtual reality is already a billion-dollar market.”

Kevin Cosgrove, the director of the Behavioral Research Lab in the W. P. Carey School of Business, prepares the new virtual-reality goggles for testing on research assistant Kristyn Raleigh. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Expanding the pool

The endless supply of students is a boon to ASU faculty — and the lab’s corporate partners — who want to do research, Cosgrove said.

“If something doesn’t work, they can change it and try it again,” he said.

But that gigantic pool of college-goers isn’t the best representation of all consumers.

“You can’t ask a 19-year-old, ‘What’s your greatest fear when you put a down payment down on a house?’ " Cosgrove said.

To resolve that, the lab has applied for a grant to create a mobile lab, which will go out into different neighborhoods and survey consumers under the same regulated conditions that exist inside the facility.

Cosgrove gave the example of a fast-food chain that offered its minimum-wage employees financial advice in 2013. The advice, such as "turn off the heat," was seen as condescending and inaccurate, and ended up creating bad publicity for the chain. Cosgrove said that research on real minimum-wage workers could have produced better results.

“It’s because a lot of people don’t do research on these vulnerable populations and if they do it, they can’t do it in the same way we do here,” he said.

He said the issue is an old one, universal and not limited to ASU.

“White, rich kids is what all of these studies are on, and these are the studies that policy decisions are made off of. It’s important stuff,” he said.

“We’re hoping to change the way people do research.”

Top photo: Kristyn Raleigh, a senior marketing and computer information systems major, tries on the virtual-reality googles in the Behavioral Research Lab, where she is a research assistant. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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