Why we can't "just say no" to samples

With grocery list in hand, I headed to the store with smart decisions in mind. I didn’t know it was a sample day. What was initially to be a conservative and practical shopping afternoon became a free-for-all smorgasbord that led to the purchase of several specialty snacks and prepared foods that weren’t in the budget. Why are sampling and demonstrations such a boon for retailers and pitfall for consumers? Turns out, what I thought could only be attributed to sheer lack of shopper willpower can be blamed on science.

Yesterday, NPR discussed the recent Wall Street Journal article and book, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer writes of a study by Stanford University professor Baba Shiv in which several groups of students were divided into two groups.

From the WSJ article:
"One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad."

Then he writes:

“Here's where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Professor Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a "cognitive load" — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation."

The Takeaway?
When consumers are rushing down the aisles wondering what’s next on the to-do list while trying to mentally add what’s already in the cart, they’re a lot more likely to throw in un-planned items. We’re all overwhelmed and we can’t live in a bubble refusing to make decisions or linger near temptation, but we can at least recognize why we’re being tempted – and know when sample days are.

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