Physics as a Window into Consumer Behaviour

(If you prefer to skip the physics, please skip to ‘Where Psychology Fits In”)

For decades and decades, physicists have struggled with a problem: unifying two fundamental laws of nature. The physical laws that govern the world of everyday matter (that we can see, for example, balls, houses and cats) and the word of the really small (atoms and even smaller particles). The eminent scientist Isaac Newton’s laws says that if you know where, for example, a ball’s location  is in space at a specific time (now, for example), and you know how fast it is travelling, you can know exactly where it will end up at some time in the future. If I know a ball is travelling at 5 kilometers per hour due south, then I can predict exactly where it will end up… and when it will arrive. Not so with the laws of the very small. If you know the location of a photon (the smallest particle light is made of), you cannot precisely calculate its speed. Similarly, if you know its speed, you cannot precisely determine its location. Very strange, but this has phenomenon has been shown to be true over and over again.

Imagine something really small such as a fly, and imagine something really large, such as a human being. How is it that a fly can climb walls gracefully and with little effort, while it takes superhuman strength for us to walk up a hill?

Well it turns out, there are advantages to be small and other advantages to be really ‘large’ as we humans are. The fly can take advantage of the electromagnetic force* to stick to seemingly smooth surfaces, whereas with larger objects the electromagnetic force is too small to have an effect. Gram for gram, an insect can pick up many times its body weight**. Also, insects can also fall from far greater heights than us human without injuring themselves, because their small mass reduces the force with which they hit the ground***.

The downside to being small is that your surface area increases exponentially relative to your volume. This means that the fly loses its body heat much faster than we as humans do. A Shrew, a tiny small mole-like mammal creature, has a heart beat at around  1511 beats/min, beating itself to death in just two years****. Smaller animals also have to eat a large percentage of their body weight just to maintain their body temperature. For the Hummingbird this is more than their own body weight every single day!


Where Psychology Fits in

Just as physics have different laws for the small and for the large, there are different ‘laws’ governing individuals than people as part of a social group. In isolation, people can take initiative and consistently meet deadlines. Whereas when they are in a group, they can fall prey to groupthink and social loafing. To conform to a group becomes the easy default option.  

In 1951 Solomon Asch showed the presence of conformity what is now seen as a classic experiment in social psychology. Asch showed participants three lines of varying length (see the figure below








The respondents had to say, out loud, which line is the most like the line on the left. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of them were actually associates of the experimenter, and deliberately gave wrong answers. 32% of the participants gave the same (clearly wrong) answer as the confederates…

Understanding the context within which behaviour takes place is crucial to make the right inferences

Understanding the context within which behaviour takes place is crucial to make the right inferences In isolation, people are often loss averse. We see losses as far greater than a gain of the same amount. But on the stock market with many thousands of people exhibiting their own, unique behaviour, those that are loss averse and those that are not more or less cancel each other out.

In the hospitality industry this dichotomy of individual/social behaviour is particularly interesting. The experimental psychologist Brian Wansink has shown that people eat around 27% more in the presence of other people than when they dine alone.

Understanding the context within which behaviour takes place is crucial to make the right inferences for behaviour. If you want to determine possible reasons for why a consumer behaved in a specific way, start with, for example, social influences (such as groupthink or social loafing). Then, look at the context (do consumers have a need for security because of fear in the environment? the need for  comfort? Or recognition (status)? Or just a good experience?). Finally, assume some past experiences (associations) by consumers that might trigger certain stereotypes, beliefs or attitudes. All these factors, while all having an influence on behaviour, do not all carry the same weight in different contexts. There are many more factors that can influence behaviour. At the very least it is crucial to understand that within a different context, different factors have different effects on consumers.

*You can demonstrate this by licking your finger and sticking a piece of paper to it

**A Rinoceros beetle can lift up to 850 times their own body weight

***As the surface area of an object doubles, the mass increases by eight times

****As things get bigger, they tend to live longer





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