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People Believe that Products Work Better for Others than Themselves

Who do you think benefits more from a product, you or someone else?

Key points

  • Consumers tend to believe that products from sports drinks to relaxation lamps will work better for others than themselves.
  • Explanations for these self-other differences include people's perception of their own uniqueness and others' greater malleability.
  • Differences in perceptions of efficacy could have detrimental effects in the health domain, including overmedication and vaccine hesitancy.

Individuals tend to see themselves and their lives in a positive light. Most people, for example, regard themselves as above-average drivers (the better-than-average effect) or judge their personal risk of getting cancer as less than the average.

Given that we’re all prone to self-enhancement and over-optimism, one might expect the same tendency to apply in all domains of life. New consumer research by Even Polman and colleagues shows evidence to the contrary when people are asked to judge how well products will work.

In one of their studies, the researchers asked experiment participants to rate the expected efficacy of 25 different products, ranging from coloring books to moisturizer. For moisturizer, for example, the researchers asked participants how much they agreed that using a moisturizer will help to hydrate skin. One group of participants were asked about their own skin, while another group was asked about other people’s skin.

Results showed that people believed that, on average, products will work better for others than themselves. This effect varied, however, depending on factors like product familiarity, perceived popularity, frequency of use, and perceived usefulness. For example, the self-other difference in perceived product efficacy was greater for products considered to be less popular.

Given that people often see themselves in a better light than they see others, could these findings be due to a better-than-average effect in disguise, i.e. consumers believing that they need products less than others? The authors looked into this possibility but found no evidence to support such a hypothesis.

Their studies did show, however, that people consider products to have greater efficacy for others because they think of themselves as more unique than the average person. A second reason for the self-other difference identified by the researchers is malleability. This is consumers’ belief that they are more consistent and less variable than other people and thus less likely to be swayed by products’ effects. (Perhaps there is a degree of self-enhancement in disguise, after all?)

These biases have the potential to lead to detrimental outcomes in some domains. In their studies, Polman’s team included products from the category of health and medicine. They found that consumers believed those products to work better for others, implying that they might think they personally require more of a given product to achieve the benefits others would get. This bias could potentially lead people to over-medicate themselves.

The authors also investigated the extent to which self-other differences in efficacy perceptions might apply to COVID-19. A study conducted by the researchers at the beginning of the pandemic asked some people “How much do you think your social distancing will affect your health?” and others “How much do you think others’ social distancing will affect their health?” People thought the effect would be greater for others. Another study conducted a year later looked at the COVID-19 vaccine more specifically. Again, participants thought it would be more effective for others than themselves.

Taken together, the article suggests that efficacy perceptions might reflect some kind of consumer hypocrisy, “whereby consumers may advise a course of action to others that they may not follow themselves.” A scary thought in the context of COVID-19.