Can you experience love at first “swipe”?

Rhonda Hadi, Oxford University, UK and Ana Valenzuela, Baruch College, CUNY & Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain

crbs0500485A Meaningful Embrace: Contingent Effects of Embodied Cues of Affection

​Research from Oxford University and Baruch College suggests that people might be “bonding” with products without even realizing it. It’s not uncommon, of course, for people to treat some objects affectionately. After all, children hug their teddy bears, and an adult might tenderly stroke the steering wheel of a beloved car. Usually, people perform physical gestures like these because they feel close to an object. But what if such affectionate physical interactions are what make people grow attached to the object to begin with?

This research looks at whether physically interacting with products in an affectionate manner might lead people to grow attached to those products. The researchers ran a series of studies in which people had to perform affectionate gestures (e.g. hugging, stroking) with a variety of products (e.g. paper towel, clocks, books). Importantly however, these individuals were not aware that they were performing affectionate gestures. For example, in one study, they asked participants to carry paper towel around a room: some were instructed to simply hold the paper towel in their hands, whereas others were instructed to wrap their arms around the product (hence mimicking an embrace). As a result, the researchers found that when people performed the affectionate gestures, they grew more attached to the products, and accordingly liked the products more and were more willing to buy them. Importantly though, this was only the case when the designated product had some visual human-like traits (e.g. a human face on the packaging). That’s because affectionate gestures like hugs are usually reserved for human-to-human interactions, and thus the products must be somewhat humanlike for the gesture to result in affectionate feelings.

Interestingly, they also found that people who feel lonely are especially susceptible to this “embodied affection” effect. That is, because lonely people typically lack a consistent human source of companionship, they are more likely to attach to a product as a result of performing an affectionate gesture towards it.

This research is the first to suggest that under the right conditions, affectionate gestures can lead people to grow attached to products. Some product manufacturers and marketers seem to already be banking on this strategy. For example, advertisements for the “Swiffer Wet Jet” depict housewives affectionately dancing with their mops as if they were human companions. Similarly, digital products manufacturers encourage users to “swipe” their tablets and phones- a motion very much akin to stroking. This research would suggest that these subtle physical interactions actually lead people to become more attached to their products.

Consumer humanization of and attachment to intimate products has gained a lot of attention recently (e.g. Spike Jonez’s latest film, “Her,” is about a man who falls in loves with his operating system). While our research explored how physical gestures might do this, future research might examine how other humanlike consumer-object exchanges might similarly generate attachment. For example, voice-activated products (e.g. iPhone’s Siri, Google Glass, etc.) have become quite prevalent in the marketplace, and some experts even suggest it might be beneficial to remind people they are talking to machines, in order to make them more conscious of the non-human nature of the exchange. It would be interesting to explore the long-term effects of this behavior on consumers.

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