Category Archives: Consumption

Doctor Who and the Aerobics

TIMEA female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit.  For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations!  Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?”  Good call!  That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.

The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”.   The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born.  So far, so good…  Well my functional age is ##   (nope, not telling you!).  Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent.  Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least.  Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!).  But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?

Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice.  Ok, what about the idea of biological age?  Now that’s a very tricky concept!  Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments.  Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is.  Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure.  So, what can we do instead?

Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code.  This is based on the idea of fitness age.  Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves.  If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.

So, what do we know so far?  Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die.  That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect!  In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc.  And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…

Alas, it is not quite that simple.  There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!).  Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health.  Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!

So, where does all this leave us?  Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is.  Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all!  Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…

BOGOF takes a holiday

santaSanta is soon due to end his 364-day holiday and pay an annual visit to his workplace.  I could tell that today by all the Christmas posters and stuff littering the shop windows in Durham.  Halloween is upon us, so “trick-or-treat” will soon give way to “penny for the guy”, closely followed by carol singers.  Then, sure enough, it is mid-December and the Easter eggs are back in the shops!

Remember, though, Christmas is a time of giving…especially to retailers!  We will all spend a disproportionate amount of money relative to our monthly income as the “festive” season approaches and the retail industry knows that.  As a consequence, the behavioural economists will be out to get our hard-earned cash with their psychological tricks.  Buyer beware – indeed!

This piece published by Chicago Booth is quite timely in this respect.  It highlights the ways in which retailers exploit our heuristics and biases to increase sales, especially in the run up to the big day.  We typically discount the future, for instance, so this time of year sees a growth of enticing offers on larger items to “buy now, pay later”, the logic being that it seems less expensive if we don’t part with our cash until April 2015.  Similarly, we can also expect to see all of the cosmetics counters in department stores offering free gift sets when we buy a standard purchase, even though this desirable free item is simply a cheap bag full of samples (still, we can wrap it for someone we don’t like that much, can’t we?).

The “special offer” that almost completely vanishes soon until the new year is the “buy one, get one free” (BOGOF) deal.  I find these fascinating as they are a relatively recent invention in the scheme of things.  When I was younger, the same offer was simply called “half price”!  BOGOF off is a much clever development though because, although economically the same, it means we have to buy double the quantity in order to get the item at half-price.  Smart!

BOGOFs are hard to find from early November, however, except in the supermarkets.  They typically go on holiday until January.  Why?  Because retailers want us to work just that little bit harder to find the best deals, thereby increasing their profits during a crucial sales period.  This is the reason we see items in Boots with the little green Christmas trees on them – we buy three items with the trees, the cheapest item is free.  More a case of “buy two, get one free” (BTGOF).  Oh now that is clever…..!

They must be cheating… they’re talking to each other!


Who among us can’t say we haven’t looked around a crowded bar and tried to work out which couples should (or shouldn’t!) be there with each other?  Go on admit it, we all do it!  Well, next time you are trying to figure out if two people are married  or not, just check if there is a cellphone on the table…

Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I find myself increasingly less tolerant when I am trying to have a conversation with someone and they suddenly pick up their cellphone, reply to a text and then turn back to me to resume the conversation with a quick “Sorry, you were saying…?”  How rude!  A colleague pointed out the other day, however, that this is simply the normal way of interacting in modern life,  We “multi-task” in everything, including conversations.

A paper in Environment and Behavior set me thinking a little more about this.  Apparently, there is a lot of research in the psychology literature on the impact cellphones are having on aspects of everyday life, including talking to each other. The mere presence of a smartphone on the table in a bar or restaurant, for instance, leads to shorter conversations, more trivial topics being discussed, less attention being paid to the other person, longer periods of silence, and so on.  Emotional side-effects are most pronounced, with a quite noticeable drop in empathy occurring compared to situations where no phone is in sight.

Intriguingly, all of these effects are greater the closer two people are, with the biggest differences being seen among couples.  The closer a couple are, the less attention and affection they will show each other if one of them has an iPhone on the table, even if they aren’t actually using it!

And the moral of the story?  Well, next time you look round that bar, the couples constantly breaking off to text someone, or who are sat in silence with a game of Candycrush, they are the ones who are married!  The couples who really shouldn’t be there together will be closer to each other, actually talking to each other more, and they wont have a cellphone anywhere in sight!

Green Coke with….MORE sugar?!?

coca-cola-lifeNow here is an interesting one…  Following a successful pilot in Argentina in late 2013, Coca Cola this week announced that Coke Life is to be released throughout Europe.  As a product, it’s kind of difficult to figure out quite who this particular variant is aimed at.  It has less sugar than the standard product, that’s true, but surely those seeking this attribute would buy Diet Coke or Coke Zero?  Apparently not!

The company say that the latest variant is intended to occupy the “middle ground”, with less sugar than the standard variety but still more than Diet Coke. Mmmnnn… still don’t quite see why anybody would want that… you either want the regular product or one with less/no sugar, surely?  Be fascinating to see whether sales live up to expectations.  Yes it has less sugar then regular Coke…but it still has four teaspoons of sugar in a standard can, around 25% of a child’s recommended daily intake, so it’s hardly a “healthy option”!  Wonder if consumers will pick up on this, or  maybe they’ll assume it’s healthier than it really is  given it’s in a green can and the name is only one letter different to Coke Lite!  Sure that’s a coincidence though….

Why does Martha have a baseball cap?

photoMy dog Martha, pictured here in a fetching winter sweater, has traditional dog coats, a couple of fetching hoodies, and even her own baseball cap.  But why do we insist on dressing our best friends in human clothes?   Clay Routledge suggests that one explanation might be that we are seeking to extend our own mortality through our canine companions.

Just as we recognise our own mortality and seek to perpetuate our genetic lifespan through our children, so Routledge argues we similarly anthropomorphise our pet dogs in order to share our “species superiority” and extend our existence through them.

It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not convinced!  I think the explanation is much simpler.  If our dogs do share something in common with our children then it is that, in addition to regarding them as part of the family, we also have an unfortunate habit of tending to treat them as possessions too.  Through our children, we use conspicuous consumption to reinforce our own self-esteem as much as theirs, dressing them in designer clothing, the latest must-have trainers, and so on.  Our kids reinforce our status, in other words, and we achieve this through consumption.  I think this is exactly what is going on with our dogs, too.  We treat them as family members, yes, but we also decorate them in the latest designer trappings so we look good as well.

I think this is a much more plausible explanation than a pseudo-evolutionary one.  Certainly, one only has to spend a half-hour wandering around the latest petcare trend (designer stores!) to see merit in this explanation evident in the big-name brands on display.  Which begs the question, why is the literature on consumer behaviour toward animals not afforded more academic attention?


Chew your iPhone, not your gum

girl-chewing-bubble-gumThe world can be a strange place and part of this strangeness comes from the fact that very unlikely (and at times downright weird!) relationships can occur between seemingly disparate variables.  A post over on the Rocket News site caught my attention this weekend that illustrates this beautifully.  It seems that as smartphone sales have increased, there has been a corresponding and almost linear decrease in sales if chewing gum.  Most odd!

Why on earth would purchasing something like an iPhone decrease the likelihood of buying gum?!?  Masami Yamamoto, Fujitsu’s president, has put forward a plausible explanation. Smartphones keep us occupied in those spare moments throughout the day.  If we have a five minute pause in our workload, for instance, we can browse a website or send a text.  According to Yamamoto, the smartphone has thus supplanted the primary function of chewing gum which, apparently, we used to enjoy simply as a way of killing time.  He also believes that this is another example of an innovation in one industry unexpectedly impacting upon another, just like the impact the compact disc (a computer data storage device) had on sales of vinyl records.

Not sure what I make of that explanation, to be honest.  Seems to me that different people use different products for different purposes all the time, so I just don’t buy the idea that killing time is the main reason for chewing gum.  In my case, it’s more likely to be related to one of my irregular and doomed-to-fail attempts to quit smoking!  As a regular pen chewer (make of that what you will, Sigmund), I prefer the more outlandish explanation offered – we aren’t buying as much gum because we are all seeking comfort by chewing our smartphones instead.

Well, you never know…could be true…  In the meantime, here is my wacky product of the week – an iPhone stand disguised as bubble gum!



And still to come… shopping!

NewsSoap operas historically occupy the most expensive slot on TV when it comes to the sale of advertising, mass audiences commanding hefty fees to secure a slot for a ‘prime time’ commercial.   The canny advertising agency should, however, give far greater consideration to a less expensive option…

According to research undertaken by MediaScience, Television news content is information rich, demanding high levels of audience attention and amplifying the brain’s analytical and critical thinking activities.  These programmes therefore not only deliver large audiences, they also prime consumer decision-making.   The research suggests that this heightened level of cognitive functioning fosters an evaluative mindset that carries over into the commercial break, increasing the likelihood that consumers may reach a decision and follow through to a purchase.

How strong is this cognitive priming effect?  Well, compared to a control group, viewers in this study were 52% more likely to reach a decision during a news broadcast, 30% more likely to buy a product advertised during that slot, and 25% more prone to adding items to a shopping list.

More broadly, while watching the news, we process information 20% faster than during other TV shows and evaluate data with 10% greater accuracy.  So, not only are we more likely to buy a product we’ve seen during the commercial break, chances are we will make a much better decision too!