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Superstitious choice and the placebo effect: Consumer products as instruments of control

Eric Hamerman, 2010
Faculty Advisor: Gita Johar
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When people want an event to unfold in a certain manner, but perceive that they are unable to facilitate this result due to either circumstance or a low level of self-efficacy, they may be tempted to resort to irrational measures in order to increase the likelihood of success. This dissertationcontains two essays that examine methods by which individuals attempt to exert control over events with uncertain outcomes, as well as the consumer behavior implications of these actions.

The first essay will focus on superstitious behavior. When individuals desire a specific outcome (such as their favorite team winning a ballgame), and there is no realistic avenue to achieve this result, they are likely to resort to superstitious inferences that are based on previously learned experiences (e.g., "the last time I ordered Dr. Pepper, my team won"). In six studies, individuals were presented with the opportunity to impact an outside event (e.g., "my team is playing a match right now") by engaging in superstitious behavior.

The likelihood that such superstitious behavior would occur varies with the desire to impact the event outcome. As self-affirmation and generalized self-efficacy increase, this desire is reduced along with the likelihood of superstitious behavior, indicating that the phenomenon of superstition is unique from conditioning (in which associating a product with a successful outcome would simply lead to increased liking, regardless of one's level of self-efficacy or motivation).

Although individuals recognize that superstitious behavior is widely practiced, they do not acknowledge that superstition is driving their behavior at the moment it is performed. However, after they make a superstitious choice, individuals are more likely to predict that the event they wish to affect will unfold in a favorable manner.

The second essay extends the idea of controlling an outcome through product choice to the placebo effect. Just as a medical patient might expect a sugar pill to facilitate pain relief and then report diminished levels of pain, individuals may also find that consuming a specific product (e.g., an energy drink) can impact future behavioral performance (e.g., test-taking). Two studies demonstrate that perceived difficulty of the task interacts with the type of placebo treatment (positive or negative expectation). After a placebo treatment, perceiving the task as difficult (vs. neutral) reduces performance, but the reverse occurs after a nocebo (negative placebo) treatment. It is hypothesized that a combination of a nocebo treatment and a difficult task is perceived as threatening, leading to a compensatory response that results in increased effort and greater success.

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