When three’s a crowd

When people go shopping they prefer not to be alone in the aisle. That’s according to Jennifer Argo and colleagues who watched dozens of student participants while they went into a shop to buy some batteries. The students thought they were participating in an investigation of the shop’s management but really the researchers were studying how the presence of other people in the aisle affected the students’ shopping experience. The researchers used a team of accomplices so they could control how busy the battery aisle was.

Students who shopped with one other person in the battery aisle subsequently reported feeling happier and more confident while shopping than did students who shopped in an empty aisle. However, whereas the company of one other person had a positive effect, students who shopped in the company of two or three other people were no happier than students who’d shopped alone in the aisle. A second experiment showed these effects only applied when the other people in the aisle were two feet away; when they were eight feet away, their presence or absence was irrelevant. The proximity of other ‘shoppers’ in the aisle also affected the students brand choice, leading them to buy more expensive batteries, presumably in order to impress.

Explaining their finding that people don’t like to shop in an empty aisle, the authors said “Research has suggested and shown that the mere association between people can create an initial level of social attachment, and that this change to one’s perceived belongingness can elicit a positive emotional response”.

“However, when the social size increases beyond the comfort of one person”, they added “consumers’ emotional reactions turn negative, possibly due to the increasingly crowded environment”.
Argo, J.J., Dahl, D.W. & Manchanda, R.V. (2005). The influence of a mere social presence in a retail context. Journal of Consumer Research, In Press (due September).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.