Marketing theory often starts with the assumption that we know what we want. That marketers serve consumers’ preferences underpins the marketing concept. Unfortunately there is quite a lot of research that suggests that we don’t know our own preferences that well.
Much of this work is in psychology and is often surprisingly fun. This being Valentine’s Day I’ll describe an experiment on attraction. Forty years ago Dutton and Aron got an attractive woman to approach single men after they had walked across one of two bridges. One was a fear inducing suspension bridge, the other considerably less scary. The woman asked the unsuspecting men to fill in a questionnaire including writing a brief dramatic story. At the end she gave them her number for “any further questions”.
Back at the lab fresh eyes coded the stories for sexual content. Men approached on the fear inducing bridge had written stories with more sexual imagery. (Why exactly anyone felt stories with sexual imagery appropriate is an interesting question — to be fair what was classed as sexual imagery was sometimes quite modest, mentions of a girlfriend etc…) Furthermore, those on the fear inducing bridge were later more likely to call the woman; 9 out of 18 called after emerging from the fear inducing bridge versus 2 out of 16 after walking across the tame bridge. The conclusion, “…subjects in the experimental group [the fear inducing bridge] were more attracted to the interviewer”. (Dutton and Aron 1974, page 512)
The validity of experiments outside the lab is hard to ensure but they are usually interesting enough for people to accept the risk. Dutton and Aron ran controls, and a second slightly different experiment, so let us assume that the experiment worked as intended. This means that the same woman was thought to be more attractive when men were emerging from a more fear inducing situation.
This suggests a potential link between fear and attraction. I’m not suggesting that marketers leap out from behind a stack of cans to scare customers into falling in love with their new cereal. The lesson I highlight is more general. The men may not have really known precisely what they thought was attractive. Their hearts pumping from the scary bridge they projected the excitement onto the woman who approached them. If people don’t always perfectly know what they want this is a significant challenge to the marketing concept.
You may also want to reconsider where you are going for a Valentine’s Day date: dangerous bridge anyone?
Read: Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron (1974) Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 30, No 4, pages 510-517.