What if consumers are just following their hearts?

Psychophysiology in consumer research: the measurement of bodily responses to food

The MCB group is exploring exciting new research areas. As a result about one year ago my PhD project started. Its main aim is to find new applications for measurements such as the responses of the autonomic nervous system in consumer science. The responses of the autonomic nervous system include measurements such as heart rate, skin response, pupil dilation, skin temperature among others. Our project studies these measures in relation to consumers’ food choices.  We are therefore taking the  psychophysiological route in consumer science.

“Psychophysiological” sounds extremely nice but for some it might not say a lot (we’ve all been there, believe me). As human beings, we often show signs  of what we feel or experience.  For example, when you are about to have your road test to get your driver license,  you are probably quite nervous.  Your start to sweat and your heart accelerates.  In our research, we aim to capture those physiological signs. In other words,  we  look at how the body reacts under different conditions and how this changes the way consumers behave or perceive foods. For example,  in experiments we can make  participants believe that a product contains a specific (maybe even disgusting) ingredient when in reality it does not. We could also give participants two identical products and tell them that they are testing different ones (one could be “improved” for example).

Why not simply ask consumers what they feel and experience? That would be a lot easier. However, a common problem  in consumer tests, which is well known to researchers, is bias. Consumers have a hard time predicting their future emotions and decisions.  Quite often the ratings that participants give to certain products do not match their future  behaviour. Simply put, participants may say in the consumer tests that one product is extremely liked or preferred but when the product is launched in the market place, the product fails. Getting rid of such an effect would be a huge advantage. As stated by their name, the responses of the automatic nervous system (ANS) are automatic, which means that you cannot control them.  This is seen as a possible solution to the bias problem.

An important matter arises when talking about ANS responses. The autonomic nervous system is involved in different processes in the body. Breathing or moving , for example, will cause changes in the ANS responses. How can we know for sure that the response that we get is related to the reaction of the consumer to the product?

ANS responses are well established but their use in this area is just starting. Researchers have tried to find patterns of ANS measurements that can  reflect emotions but  results vary among studies. We therefore find ourselves with the challenge of looking for the best way in which we can use these measurements. So stay tuned! I’ll keep you posted on all the findings that make my heart “skip a beat” (pun intended).


Luz Verástegui Tena

About Luz Verástegui Tena

Luz Verástegui Tena is PhD student at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. She studies responses of the autonomic nervous system (psychophysiology) in relation to consumer food choices.

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