The lines between what is real and what is virtual are becoming increasingly blurred. Social media, augmented reality, and, particularly, virtual reality seem to merge online and offline worlds and selves. In this hybrid environment, it is not only increasingly difficult to separate our real and virtual selves but also to distinguish ourselves from others. Sometimes, we imagine that other consumers’ actions are ours, or we partake in the events that other consumers share online. Indeed, we seem to increasingly live vicariously through other people’s consumption experiences.
As such, it is important to understand the consequences of living vicariously through others’ consumption experiences on consumer behavior. A new Journal of Marketing Research study by Andrea Webb Luangrath, Joann Peck, William Hedgcock, and Yixiang Xu explores the notion of “vicarious touch” – the observation of a hand in physical contact with a product in a digital environment. This hand, for example, could be holding a phone, a coffee cup, or a piece of clothing in an image on social media or in a VR environment. Specifically, the authors pondered whether observing virtual touch makes consumers feel as if they, themselves, are touching the product.
The authors find that observing a hand engaging in touch can increase the perception that the virtual hand is actually the consumer’s own hand. This is what the authors refer to as “body ownership.” In turn, body ownership increases psychological ownership (it’s mine!) of the product that the virtual hand is touching, leading to increased product valuations. This sequence of effects is what the authors term the “vicarious haptic effect.”
The authors find that observing a hand engaging in touch can increase the perception that the virtual hand is actually the consumer’s own hand.
The vicarious haptic effect is vital to nearly any marketer who aims to have their target audience value their product offering. One way to do that, as this research suggests, is to facilitate a sense of body ownership of a virtual hand. Retailers can enhance the sense of body ownership by displaying a virtual hand that is actively engaging with the product in meaningful ways for consumers.
We contacted the authors to dive deeper into this captivating research. Read on to discover the authors’ responses about their research motives, the wide array of research methods employed in this research, and the perils of a vicarious world to consumers.
Q: This is a really interesting topic to study. What was your main motivation(s) to conduct this research?
A: One of the key insights that drove this project was borne out of how one retailer designed their first-ever virtual reality store. This VR shopping environment lacked a semblance of self in the experience: there were no hands available to reach out to touch products, and there were no physical cues for the consumer suggesting that they were physically present in the VR environment. We began to wonder whether virtual displays of a hand touching a product (what we call vicarious touch) affect the way consumers perceive products. Companies also asked if the effect of touch leading to feelings of ownership and valuation would translate to product touch portrayed in digital media more generally. Through our work, we were able to answer these questions, adding both to haptics and ownership theory and also to managerial practice.
Q: Are you considering extending your study to other sensory experiences, such as smell, for products like food?
A: At this time, we are not working to extend this in the domain of smell, but it would be an interesting future research direction.
Q: Have you thought about how haptic touch of a product could reduce the cognitive load for consumer decision making?
A: In our research, we did not test whether touch alters cognitive resources available to an individual. Using theory based on haptics, we expect that the individual difference in the preference for touch (termed “need for touch”; Peck and Childers 2003) may provide insight into this question. Since haptic information is more accessible for those higher in need for touch, fewer cognitive resources may be needed for processing for these individuals. We hope that our work inspires others to investigate this and other questions.
Q: Research today often consists of many different research methods to test the hypothesized effects. Why do you believe it’s important to employ a wide range of methods to investigate research questions? According to your experience, should this be a nice-to-have approach or a must?
A: Research papers can employ a multimethod approach, but importantly, the decision of what methodology to use should be driven by the research question. We don’t view the selection of methodology as a “nice-to-have” or a “must” – it is simply a matter of deciding which methodology is the most appropriate to study the phenomenon or question of interest. In our research, this led us to conduct analyses on secondary data (from Instagram) and lab experimental data, as well as physiological response data to explore whether and how vicarious touch affects consumer perceptions of products.
Q: Some research on vicarious effects seems to suggest that increased exposure to another’s experience could actually decrease consumers’ willingness to purchase. Do you think this could be one of the unanticipated consequences of the trends mentioned in your paper? If so, how do you think marketers could best tackle this?
A: We expect there are many unanswered questions with regards to vicarious effects. The beauty of systematic research is that main effects can be identified along with various boundary conditions that allow for a more nuanced view of both the effects and the process. We look forward to learning more as this area develops.
Q: In the greater scheme of things, your article illuminates how our lives are getting increasingly “hybridized” – blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is virtual. As a marketer, this presents wonderful opportunities, as it creates new markets and platforms through which we can reach out to potential customers. As a consumer, do you think this is equally promising or do you think this is something we should handle with utmost care?
A: It is true that consumer experiences are increasingly mediated by technology. Brands are investing considerable resources to engage consumers online, including in new environments, such as augmented and virtual reality. Our research demonstrates that these immersive environments can facilitate vicarious experience by blurring the lines of what is considered one’s own body, affecting one’s psychological ownership of a product and therefore influencing product valuation. It is important to understand how consumers respond to and are influenced by their digital and virtual experiences in the marketplace.
Read the full article here:
Luangrath, Andrea Webb, Joann Peck, William Hedgcock, and Yixiang Xu (2022), “Observing Product Touch: The Vicarious Haptic Effect in Digital Marketing and Virtual Reality,” Journal of Marketing Research,” 59 (2), 306–26, DOI:10.1177/00222437211059540.
Peck, Joann and Terry L. Childers (2003), “To Have and to Hold: The Influence of Haptic Information on Product Judgments,” Journal of Marketing, 67 (2), 35–48, DOI:10.1509/jmkg.126.96.36.19912.