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RESEARCH INSIGHT | When Consumers Feel Out of Control, They Prefer Numerical Certainty

The Research

Feeling a loss of control is a common reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. This study shows that when consumers are seeking to regain control of their environment, they prefer specific numerical product information (e.g., 12- to 14-hour battery life, 20 calories per serving). In fact, when people lack personal control, they value point value information so much that they express preferences for a product with a lower benefit but that is specified as a point value, compared with when its benefit is higher but specified as a range.

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What You Need to Know

Consider your customers’ psychological need to control their environment in these uncertain times by advertising specific numerical benefits of your product—the more specific, the better. Even ranges are less optimal than actual numbers.



Despite the ubiquity of numerical information in consumers’ lives, prior research has provided limited insights to marketers about when numerical information exerts greater impact on decisions. This study offers evidence that judgments involving numerical information can be affected by consumers’ sense of personal control over the environment. A numerical attribute’s format communicates the extent to which the magnitude of a benefit is predictable (Study 1a), such that people who experience a control threat and want to see their external environment as predictable (Study 1b) rely on point value (vs. range) information as a general signal that the environment is predictable (Study 2). A personal control threat changes consumers’ preferences as a function of whether the numerical information appears as a point value or a range (Studies 3–4). This heightened focus on format may lessen the impact of a product benefit’s predicted magnitude, if a lower magnitude is specified in a more precise format (Study 5). Study 6 provides first evidence that the interactive effect of personal control levels and numerical formats can affect consequential choices.

Christophe Lembregts and Mario Pandelaere (2019), “Falling Back on Numbers: When Preference for Numerical Product Information Increases after a Personal Control Threat,” Journal of Marketing Research, 56 (1), 104-122.