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Technology and the Road to Self-Improvement

Premium-branded experiences may actually be making your performance worse.

By permission of MIT Sloan School of Management
MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Renée Richardson Gosline
Source: By permission of MIT Sloan School of Management

By Renée Richardson Gosline, Ph.D.

The promises of the digital world are everywhere. We use apps to help us learn a language, manage our money, lose weight, sleep better. We sign up for online professional certificate courses and stream thought-provoking lectures; firms increasingly conduct training via platforms and parents use digital tools to prepare children for the classroom.

This trend shows no signs of slowing: the global E-Learning market is expected to reach $325 billion by 2025, up from $107 Billion in 2015, according to Forbes Magazine. In the United States alone, the Yale Tribune reports, over 6 million college students have enrolled in some form of distance or online education.

The great promise of all this technology is that it will allow us to improve our performance and, ostensibly, ourselves. No longer must you have the good fortune of economic and social capital in order to gain access to premium-branded learning opportunities. Anyone with a WIFI signal, the desire for self-improvement, and the enrollment fee can take advantage.

Still, as the number and uses of these tools increase, we must stop to ask: How will we decide which brands to use, and how will that affect our performance?

Perhaps the old aphorism, “You get what you pay for,” applies. Indeed, we know from past research that products bearing premium brand labels can increase perceptions of efficacy and improve consumer performance relative to lesser-branded equivalents. This is described as a marketing placebo effect. For example, exposure to Apple logos has been shown to increase consumer creativity, writing with an MIT-branded pen leads people to see themselves as more intelligent and perform better on math tests, and using a Nike-branded putter can improve a user’s golf score.

Yet, new research by my colleagues and me in The Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that, in the case of premium-branded performance and learning experiences, the process can work in reverse. That is, despite identical products, the branded experiences that consumers perceive to be of higher status may counterproductively impair performance. Nevertheless, users are willing to pay more for these identical products.

Our experiments suggest an interesting mechanism: When the prestige of the premium brand creates a power dynamic that renders the consumer “subordinate,” and the brand as “master” of the performance domain, this may improve subjective outcomes (feeling prepared and willingness to pay) but simultaneously lower objective outcomes (scores and performance). This paradox, found across several domains, illustrates reverse placebo effects of branding: poorer performance when using highly-esteemed brands.

These findings raise important questions about societal implications. One could imagine that premium-branded product experiences hold great appeal to people who are performing in fields where they seek to bridge a status gap to gain greater access. The fact that our participants repeatedly experienced lower objective performance while at the same time feeling subjectively better-prepared and willing to pay more, is greatly concerning. The mere presence of a brand name that evoked a dominating “master” consumer-brand relationship dynamic created this unintended and undesired effect.

Does this mean that the promise of digital learning and training is squandered? Of course not, there is great value in investing in oneself via training and education, and we need more, not less, inclusivity in the rarefied air of high-status institutions. Nevertheless, our research suggests that the nature of the user’s relationship with the brand moderates the product’s efficacy. In order to experience true benefits, the user must not see the brand as a “master” of its domain (and its user), but as a tool to serve them.

But when a user’s orientation toward the brand is subordinate in nature (even unconsciously), the brand becomes the master and, as a result, people experience lower performance.

A new dawn has risen in a digital world with unprecedented access to the educational and training options that were previously only accessible to a few. Understanding whether we are bridging the digital divide means that we need to examine the unconscious barriers to gaining the full benefits of these tools. If we fail to understand how our relationships with these brands affect their efficacy, instead of lifting everyone up, we will, in fact, be leaving people behind.

Dr. Renée Richardson Gosline is a Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Gosline’s research focuses on the intersection between behavioral science and technology, and the implications for cognitive bias in human decision-making.

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