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The middle items win the votes of our wallets, study finds

July 17, 2012
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press Journals
and World Science staff

With­out real­iz­ing it, con­sumers are more likely to choose prod­ucts that sit in the hor­i­zon­tal cen­ter of a dis­play, a new study in­di­cates.

Buy­ers would probably make bet­ter choices if they be­came aware of this ten­den­cy and tried to com­pen­sate for it, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers, who re­port the find­ings in the Jour­nal of Con­sum­er Re­search.

“A close in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion of vis­u­al at­ten­tion re­veals that con­sumers do not ac­cu­rately re­call their choice pro­cess,” wrote the au­thors, A. Selin Ata­lay of the busi­ness school École des Hautes Études Com­mer­ciales in Par­is and col­leagues. 

The ten­den­cy to pick from the mid­dle is most strik­ing “in the con­text of low in­volve­ment choice be­tween fre­quently pur­chased prod­ucts, when choos­ing be­tween un­fa­mil­iar yet equiv­a­lent brands,” they wrote.

Us­ing eye-tracking de­vices, the group in­ves­t­i­gated how loca­t­ion af­fects choices for prod­ucts as var­ied as vi­ta­mins, meal re­place­ment bars, and en­er­gy drinks. Buy­ers had a ten­den­cy to in­crease their vis­u­al fo­cus on the cen­tral op­tion in the five sec­onds be­fore a de­ci­sion, and this de­ter­mined their choice, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found. They al­so ob­served that the key in terms of item loca­t­ion was for a prod­uct to be placed cen­trally with re­spect to its prod­uct cat­e­go­ry, not nec­es­sarily with re­spect to the shelf it­self or the vis­u­al field.

“Be­ing un­aware that our at­ten­tion is fo­cused on the cen­ter can lead to poor choic­es,” the re­search­ers warned in the re­port.


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Without realizing it, consumers are more likely to choose products that sit in the horizontal center of a display, a new study indicates. Buyers would probably make better choices if they became aware of this tendency and tried to compensate for it, according to the researchers, who report the findings in the Journal of Consumer Research. “A close investigation of visual attention reveals that consumers do not accurately recall their choice process,” wrote the authors, A. Selin Atalay of the business school École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Paris and colleagues. The tendency to pick from the middle is most striking “in the context of low involvement choice between frequently purchased products, when choosing between unfamiliar yet equivalent brands,” they wrote. Using eye-tracking devices, the group investigated how location affects choices for products as varied as vitamins, meal replacement bars, and energy drinks. Buyers had a tendency to increase their visual focus on the central option in the five seconds before a decision, and this determined their choice, the investigators found. They also observed that the key in terms of item location was for a product to be placed centrally with respect to its product category, not necessarily with respect to the shelf itself or the visual field. “Being unaware that our attention is focused on the center can lead to poor choices,” the researchers warned in the report.