November 24, 2023
Why do you walk quietly around an art gallery? You probably even walk slowly and whisper, rather than speaking aloud. No one has ever said that’s what the rules are, there are no signs that say, ‘please walk slowly and talk in a hushed voice’. But mostly, this is how we walk around an art gallery. You’re not likely to walk this way around a pub.
Of course, we like to think we're pretty clued up on why we act the way we act, but that's not always true. Context is so important, and can have a huge impact on creating the perfect in-store experience.
The power of context is a huge subject, but let's take a brief look.
The following is an excerpt from our new book, Atmospheres That Sell - Using Behavioural Science To Create Branded Atmospheres in Retail & Hospitality.
As social creatures, we constantly adapt our behaviours and responses based on the given context of the situation. As we grow up, we begin to learn the subconscious ‘rules’ of a context and then reliably apply them in each situation. This is perhaps an obvious point to make about human nature, however, we are not as good at understanding the power of context as we think.
Within behavioural science, there is a bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is the propensity to underestimate the influence of a given context on someone’s behaviour and overestimate someone's personality as the key driver to their decisions. Take the above example of road rage; when we are driving, we assume the driver is intellectually weak, pernicious and actively against you. Rarely do we wonder if they are in a rush to take someone to the hospital, or if they’ve just had a terrible piece of news, or if they simply weren't able to see you…
The fundamental attribution error
The foundational paper on this bias is called From Jerusalem to Jericho and it was written by John Darley and Daniel Batson of Princeton University in 1973. They invited 40 trainee Catholic priests to take part in the study, which looked at the impact of context on the participants' behaviours.
The start of the study was a questionnaire, with the participants answering questions on why they wanted to join the church and their motivations towards helping others. Next, they were to present a short 5-minute presentation in a different building just a few minutes walk away. This is where the results got interesting. The participants were randomly assigned into different groups consisting of three different states of hurry. One third were informed that they were running late (the high hurry condition), one third were informed that the assistant is ready for them so they should head straight over (moderate hurry), and the final third were told that there would be a little time before they were ready so head over, but don’t worry if there is a wait (low hurry).
All of the participants had to travel from one building to another for them to present their 5-minute talk. Strategically placed along the way was an actor pretending to require assistance. As the participants passed, they groaned and grumbled. But who would stop to help?
Imagine this wasn’t an experiment and I asked you to guess; out of 40 trainee priests, one by one passing someone in need, how many would stop. You’d likely start to think of the personality traits or morals of the individuals. If I said you could ask me a few questions before making your guess, you’d likely ask character-based questions.
When the researchers compared those who stopped with those who didn’t, the result was fascinating. Across the whole experiment, 40% of participants stopped to help. In the high hurry group, only 10% of people stopped. The moderate hurry group saw 45% of them stop, and in the low hurry group, a majority of 63% stopped to help. When this data was compared to the questionnaire's data, the individuals’ moralistic and personality metrics had a minimal impact on whether or not they stopped. The main driver here was simply the context of how hurried they were.
Imagine a busy high street, with only 10% of footfall entering your store. Then imagine changing this to a whopping 63% entering. Those are some pretty big numbers.
What’s important to acknowledge is that we are poor at understanding the power of context over someone's behaviour, and are too quick to assume personality-based assumptions to explain behaviour when in reality, it’s likely that the given context is doing a lot of the work.
Within business, we’re good at talking about consumers like we know them. We build psychographic personas and talk about their intimate thoughts and desires. But rarely do we consider the context they’re in and the power of our own site's context. We might say that persona A are 35-45 year-old males who love fast cars, want to impress their mates and strive for personal acclaim. And those things have some value, but if we’re selling umbrellas, it doesn’t matter how much we know about their personal life - they’re only going to buy one when it’s raining.
If context drives sales, drive the context
It sounds like it goes without saying, but if you have a product where context has a strong sway in sales - ice-cream selling better when it’s sunny, for example - then it would be a good idea to build a responsive environment that connects to contextual factors. This is easier than it might sound; with some basic integration your individual sites could be responding to contextual changes in real-time to make sure that you take advantage of them. A simple example is, when the sun comes out, change your digital display marketing to promotions of ice cream.
In truth, there are so many examples where the biggest predictor for a sale is a contextual factor and yet businesses are still so underprepared, or don’t yet have the technology to respond to these or nudge the desired behaviour by actively adapting the atmosphere. In a 2018 study called ‘Sounds like a healthy retail atmospheric strategy’ it was shown that louder, higher arousal music can increase the sales of ‘unhealthy’ foods such as fast foods, puddings and alcohol by 20%. If you’re a hospitality venue, simply by knowing this and increasing the volume at certain intervals, you could be lifting sales - and if this was automated, you wouldn’t even need to lift a finger. Such is the power of integrating your atmosphere with contextual factors to respond to or enact. And accepting that context can drive your sales, it’s worth switching this round and asking yourself how you can drive the context - music volume, lighting, aesthetic, store layout; it all supports the building of a context.
Want to know how to start implementing the Von Restorff Effect? Check out the world’s first behavioural science book specific to retail and hospitality, head here.