Consumer Behaviour,Marketing
• 5 minute read

Why is the Grass Always Greener on the Other Side?

Dai, Xianchi(戴先熾)

How does ownership or the lack of it shape our desire?

By Fang Ying, Senior Writer, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK

When you are hungry and see a piece of your favorite cake, do you perceive its size to bigger or smaller than in reality? The answer may be different depending on whether the cake belongs to you or not, according to a study by CUHK Business School on consumer psychology.

A hungry person generally would perceive a piece of cake to be bigger than it actually is. Most people probably would have had first-hand experience of this effect, known as “the-hungrier-the-larger effect.” However, a hungry person may also perceive the size of a cake to be smaller than in reality. This effect, which may not be consciously felt by people, has now been observed and documented in a research led by Xianchi Dai, an assistant professor at the Department of Marketing at CUHK Business School, and is known as “the-hungrier-the-smaller effect.”

Given the same level of hunger, why would a person experience the former “larger” effect while another experiences the latter “smaller” effect? It turns out that it all depends on whether the person owns the target item or not.

This is the finding of the empirical study. According to Prof. Dai, past consumer psychology research supports the result of the hungrier-the-larger effect — a phenomenon intuitively felt by most people and taken for granted. However, his research is the first-ever that shows the opposite effect–the hungrier-the-smaller effect — to be valid as well. It also reveals the significant impact of ownership on a person’s perception of external objects.

“Researchers in the field believe that ownership does not systematically impact consumer judgment; however, our research suggests otherwise,” Prof. Dai explains. “We found that if the consumer does not own the target item, the hungrier-the-larger effect will prevail; otherwise, the opposite effect will prevail.”

Motivational Difference

Through four experiments, Prof. Dai and his collaborator, Christopher K. Hsee from the University of Chicago, found that when people do not yet own a product, wishful thinking, i.e., wishing to get the product, dominates perception. Consequently, the person perceives it as bigger as her desire for it is stronger. However, when she already owns the product, wishful thinking disappears and is replaced by worryful thinking, i.e., she may worry that the product is not big enough to satisfy her needs, so she is more likely to estimate the size of the product to be smaller. The bigger her initial desire for the product was, the stronger this perception would be.

In one of the experiments, the researchers asked a total of 211 participants to estimate the volume of a cup of water. First, the participants were required either to drink water or to eat a pretzel, which induced either low or high levels of thirst. These participants were then placed evenly into Groups A and B. They were then asked to rate their thirst level and proceeded to the main study to estimate the volume of a cup of water.

During the main study of the experiment, the participants were split into two groups A and B. Group A were told that they owned the water and it was theirs to drink. Group B was told they did not own the water and they could not drink the water. To encourage engagement and accuracy, the person who made the most accurate estimate would win a prize.

The result of the experiment showed that in Group B — those who did not own the water, the thirstier the participants were, the larger the volume of water they estimated to be, demonstrating the “hungrier-the-larger effect.” By contrast, in Group A — those who already owned the water, the thirstier the participants were, the smaller they estimated the volume of water to be, demonstrating the “hungrier-the-smaller effect.”

“Why does this judgment difference occur? Why does ownership matter?” Prof. Dai asks. “It is due to people’s different motivations and judgment criteria for objects they own and objects that other people own.”

“In most cases, for your own objects, what you care about the most is whether it is large or good enough to satisfy your needs. But if the object is not yours and you really want it, what you care about the most is how to get it. In such a case, due to the different motivations, people may use different judgment criteria to evaluate the target items,” says Prof. Dai.

It’s All Human Nature

“It is human nature that people always feel dissatisfied with what they already own, but think highly of what they don’t yet own.” He cites two sayings as examples: an English saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side”; and a Chinese saying “the flowers in your garden are always less fragrant than the wild ones” (家花沒有野花香).

“We can find these similar sayings in either the Western or Eastern culture. It’s ubiquitous in daily life,” says Prof. Dai. “For an object that you do not yet own, because you really want to get it, the target object is thus becoming an ‘ideal’ in your mind. So you perceive the object to be better or bigger than it actually is. For an object you already own, you tend to wish that it was better or bigger because you may compare it with another object that you now want to own and feel that the current one is no longer good or big enough.”

Enhancing Consumer Desire

As such, the study has its practical implications in business. For those marketers who would like to leverage the hungrier-the-larger effect, Prof. Dai suggests that they need to make their products more desirable through feeding people’s imagination of owning it.

He uses the fashion industry as an example. When a customer walking into a fashion store, the store can adopt some kind of technology, for example, a virtual 3D mirror, to show her an image of how she would look wearing the clothes, thus whetting the consumer’s appetite to own it. This visualization exercise could greatly enhance her evaluation of the clothes and increase the chance of her purchasing it.

Prof. Dai concludes that marketers can actually manipulate consumer desire by knowing how they think and feel, and subsequently increase the chances of them purchasing a product.


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