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No Pain, No Gain? Concrete Thinking Increases Consumer Confidence

Toronto, July 21, 2010 – The confidence you feel when making a choice might depend on whether you’re thinking concretely or abstractly, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“In three experiments across a sample of 750 participants, we found that subjective feelings of ease experienced during judgments (choosing a digital camera, art, movie, or charity) can increase or decrease confidence in their choice and the amount of donation depending on whether consumers are thinking, respectively, concretely or abstractly,” write authors Claire Tsai, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Ann L. McGill who Is the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing and Behavioral Science at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The authors use the example of studying for an exam. The experience of difficulty can lead to a feeling of high confidence, if the difficulty is interpreted as effort put forth to ensure a good grade. This aligns with conventional wisdom such as “no pain, no gain.” On the other hand, the same experience can lead to feeling of low confidence if processing the material is interpreted as inability to process the study materials (“Since I had to work so hard, I am probably not very good at this subject.”)

The authors tested their hypothesis in a number of product categories including electronics, art, movies, and charitable giving. They manipulated ease of processing by varying clarity of ad messages or the number of thoughts generated to explain participant choices. They induced abstract (or concrete) thinking by asking participants to focus on the why (or how) aspects of an event.

“We found that when consumers are thinking more concretely and focusing on details of product information, ease of processing—making a choice based on a clear ad or a few reasons—increases confidence,” the authors write. “Difficulty of processing—making a choice based on a blurry ad or having to generate many reasons to explain one’s choice—decreases confidence.”

The complete study is available at: The confidence you feel when making a choice might depend on whether you’re thinking concretely or abstractly, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“In three experiments across a sample of 750 participants, we found that subjective feelings of ease experienced during judgments (choosing a digital camera, art, movie, or charity) can increase or decrease confidence in their choice and the amount of donation depending on whether consumers are thinking, respectively, concretely or abstractly,” write authors Claire Tsai, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Ann L. McGill who Is the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing and Behavioral Science at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The authors use the example of studying for an exam. The experience of difficulty can lead to a feeling of high confidence, if the difficulty is interpreted as effort put forth to ensure a good grade. This aligns with conventional wisdom such as “no pain, no gain.” On the other hand, the same experience can lead to feeling of low confidence if processing the material is interpreted as inability to process the study materials (“Since I had to work so hard, I am probably not very good at this subject.”)

The authors tested their hypothesis in a number of product categories including electronics, art, movies, and charitable giving. They manipulated ease of processing by varying clarity of ad messages or the number of thoughts generated to explain participant choices. They induced abstract (or concrete) thinking by asking participants to focus on the why (or how) aspects of an event.

“We found that when consumers are thinking more concretely and focusing on details of product information, ease of processing—making a choice based on a clear ad or a few reasons—increases confidence,” the authors write. “Difficulty of processing—making a choice based on a blurry ad or having to generate many reasons to explain one’s choice—decreases confidence.”

For the latest thinking on business, management and economics from the Rotman School of Management, visit New Thinking.

The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is redesigning business education for the 21st century with a curriculum based on Integrative Thinking. Located in the world’s most diverse city, the Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables the design of creative business solutions. The School is currently raising $200 million to ensure Canada has the world-class business school it deserves. For more information, visit http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca.

Ken McGuffin
Manager, Media Relations
Rotman School of Management
Voice: (416) 946-3818
E-mail: mcguffin@rotman.utoronto.ca

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