NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 7, 2009

Do you know what a megapixel is, or what horsepower measures?  Consumers are irresistibly drawn to product specifications even when the numbers mean nothing to them.  In fact, given a chance to directly experience competing products, buyers are still more likely to just pick the item with impressive-sounding features on the package, even if it's more expensive, says a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers offer a framework about when and how specifications influence consumer preferences and report five studies that tested their framework:

  • The first three studies show that even when consumers can directly experience the relevant products and the specifications carry little or no new information, their preference is still influenced by specifications.
  • The last two studies show that relative to choice, hedonic preference (liking) is more stable and less influenced by specifications.
  • Moreover, seeking specifications can lead buyers to overlook experiential dimensions of the choice options or to pay too much for the option with the best specification.

However, seeking specifications also entails benefits, say researchers.  They highlight two:

  • Specifications can provide useful information if direct experience is unavailable or unreliable, and consumers know how to map specifications to consumption experience.
  • Choosing options with better numbers is that the number often carries a bragging right.

Furthermore, what the researchers have sought to show is that consumers may mindlessly follow specification even in situations in which specifications are superfluous.

Source: Christopher K. Hsee et al., "Specification Seeking: How Product Specifications Influence Consumer Preference," Journal of Consumer Research, December 2008.

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