by Lina Zeldovich

Do you diligently read product labels and ask dozens of questions before buying a toothbrush? Do you need to know exactly how a new face cream will repair your skin while you sleep? You’re probably an “explanation fiend:" a consumer who makes decisions based on comprehensive research. On the other hand, if endless descriptions of features and functionalities bog you down, you’re probably an intuitive buyer, or an “explanation foe,” a new study suggests.

A team led by Philip Fernbach, professor of marketing at the University of Colorado, and Steven Sloman , a cognitive psychologist at Brown, found that consumers fall into two distinctive groups: intuitive shoppers who prefer only basic information about a product before bagging it, and data-driven buyers who seek full details. 

To identify their “shopping style,” study participants were evaluated on something called the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). They answered three tricky questions, each of which had an intuitive answer that was incorrect and a correct answer that required a bit more deliberation. Nearly half of the participants got all three questions wrong, and only ten percent thought the questions through enough to get all three right. Individuals with high CRT scores proved to be explanation fiends who analyze and question every bit of information, while those who picked the intuitive, but wrong, answers turned out to be explanation foes, who see too much data as a burden.

Both types of shopper want to understand how a product works before deciding its worth, but their methods of building that understanding are different. When "explanation fiends" learned more about a product, they trusted it more and were more willing to buy it. But "explanation foes" felt confident in their assessment of a product—even when they were light on information about it. 

Both fiends and foes also had to generate their own explanations of how products work, thus revealing what they actually understood. Data-driven explanation fiends began with a conservative assessment of their understanding, which didn’t change once they explained their perception of the product. On the contrary, the intuitive explanation foes demonstrated something called "the illusion of explanatory depth:" They started with a strong sense of understanding that plummeted as they tried to explain what they actually understood.

Being an explanation fiend or foe is an indication of personality, not intelligence, Fernbach notes. However, marketers might be able to predict how certain types of consumers will respond to varying levels of detail. “In the general population there will be more explanation foes than among technical population,” for example, Fernbach explains. “Engineers will be more interested in how things work than an average consumer.” Such knowledge, he says, can help marketers tailor the explanation level for the community of consumers they are targeting, satiating the thinkers and shielding intuitive minds from information overload.


Lina Zeldovich is an editorial intern at Psychology Today. She writes about health, science, and technology.

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