More than 35% of Americans make a New Year’s resolution, like losing weight, eating healthier or saving more money.
Let’s say you resolve to get more exercise. If you’re like a lot of people, you commit to your goal—but leave your plan for how to accomplish it flexible; you decide day-to-day whether to go the gym and what you’ll do once you’re there. In January, you skip the gym a few times. In February, you just might abandon your plan completely.
“Setting yourself up for success and sticking to a goal is hard,” says Sydney E. Scott, assistant professor of marketing at Olin Business School. “But is the issue your willpower, or your plan?”
Now imagine a friend has the same resolution. “If you’re like many people, you might advise your friend not to be flexible, but instead to determine the details of their plan in advance,” Scott says.
That would be good advice.
Follow your head
Adding detail and structure to a plan helps people achieve their goals. So why choose a more detailed—and more effective—plan for your friend, but not for yourself?
New research from Scott and Elanor F. Williams, associate professor of marketing at Olin, shows that people opt for flexibility in their own plans because they think flexibility is more appealing.
“People like the idea of having some wiggle room in their plans,” Williams says. “But their recommendations to others reveal that they do know that it’s less effective to be flexible than to have a more structured plan.”
Why do they choose a plan that’s less likely to work? “People follow their hearts more when choosing for themselves than for other people,” Scott says. “In other words, people give very good advice to others for how to plan for success but fail to follow that same advice for themselves.”
New research shows consumers strongly prefer “natural,” not synthetic, products to prevent ailments.
Which presents a dilemma. Medical researchers are racing to create a vaccine for COVID-19. When they do, how receptive will consumers be?
Vaccines are far from “natural.”
“Vaccines are technically a treatment to prevent an ailment,” said Sydney Scott, Olin assistant professor of marketing. “Moreover, vaccines are unnatural insofar as humans create and alter them. Some people refuse vaccines as a preventative measure, preferring not to ‘interfere with nature.’”
As the world anxiously awaits a COVID-19 vaccine, however, perhaps consumers will view it as a curative for a societal problem, Scott said.
“Our research suggests that if consumers view a vaccine more like a curative to the epidemic, rather than as a preventative for the self, they will be more receptive toward it.”
Consumers believe that natural products are safer and less potent than synthetic alternatives, the research found. And they care more about safety and less about potency when they’re trying to prevent problems.
“This research sheds light on when the marketing of ‘natural’ is most appealing to consumers,” Scott said.
Consumers often prefer natural versions of foods, medicines, personal care products and home products, according to the paper. “Natural” isn’t a legally defined and regulated term, but consumers’ definition is that a product has no additives and that humans haven’t tampered with it.
“This preference for natural is an increasingly important driver of consumers’ decisions,” Scott said.
Insulin, antibiotics, cortisone creams
In some cases, however, consumers abandon their preference for natural.
For example, people widely accept insulin, antibiotics, cortisone creams and synthetic stain removers, although they are evidently unnatural, according to the paper. “Thus, anecdotally, the preference for natural products looms larger in some situations than in others.”
The researchers focused on the relation between consumers’ judgments about naturalness and their beliefs about two important attributes—safety and potency. They examined when consumers prefer natural most strongly and why the variance in preference for natural occurs.
“Consumers widely desire natural products, but not always to the same degree,” Scott said. “We demonstrate that the preference for natural is particularly strong when consumers are preventing problems or illnesses compared to when they are curing the same problems or illnesses.”
Scott and coauthors Paul Rozin and Deborah Small, both of the University of Pennsylvania, present seven studies. One showed that consumers more strongly prefer the exact same natural product when preventing an ailment than when curing it. Another showed consumers search for and chose natural products to prevent versus treat cold symptoms.
Another, which examined consumers’ reports about their health choices over a year, found consumers prioritize naturalness in their preventative treatments more than in their curative treatments. And another showed that when consumers believed natural products were riskier and more potent than synthetic products, they preferred natural products for curing.
The research was developed with a focus on individuals making decisions for themselves among multiple treatment options (some natural, some synthetic). But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic raises important questions about the implications—and future directions—of their research.
For instance, the authors ask, do pandemics induce a macro-level version of a curative mindset?
“In other words, society may conclude that there already exists a problem (a widespread ailment) that needs to be cured, thereby placing more importance on potency relative to safety,” they write.
Relatedly, consumer acceptance of a prevention for pandemics and epidemics might be affected by the contagiousness of a disease, severity of a disease, scarcity of treatment options, and novelty of and lack of knowledge about the threat. And each might have downstream consequences on safety/potency tradeoffs consumers are willing to make.
The paper makes several contributions. “Our primary contribution is to provide an organizing principle for explaining when consumers prefer natural products,” the authors write. The prevent/cure distinction explains variation in the preference for natural
across distinct product categories such as food and medicine,
within product categories such as different types of medicine,
and for the same product depending on whether consumers used it to prevent or to cure ailments.
“In doing so, our research not only generates new predictions, but also helps unify past descriptive findings under one theoretical framework.”
From an applied perspective, “the identified organizing principle can help marketers predict when and where the preference for natural is likely to loom large.”
Marketers and managers often must make decisions about when to invest in a natural brand or product line.
“Our research suggests that, all else equal, natural products are most popular when they are used for preventative purposes.”
In the Western world, people have a hearty appetite for natural products, especially natural foods. Yet a new article by an Olin professor—an opinion piece backed by research—says no theoretical or empirical evidence exists to support widely held beliefs about the superiority of natural things.
“Nature is not particularly benevolent,” the authors write.
The paper, published in May in Nature Human Behaviour, is a collaboration between Sydney Scott, assistant professor of marketing at Olin, and Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition to foods labeled “organic” and “all natural,” many people use natural and herbal medicines and personal care products.
“People are drawn to these natural labels because they think nature is safe and benevolent,” Scott and Rozin write. “However, these beliefs are often wrong. Nature did not evolve to help mankind.”
Tomato paste debate
“In the lay mind,” they write, “naturalness is destroyed by almost any process that involves human intervention.” A product’s history of processing “is more important than the actual content of a product for determining naturalness.”
Consider tomato paste processed with added sugar. It’s not as natural as plain tomato paste. But if the sugar then is removed, it’s then the same as the original paste; the tomato paste has undergone two processes and is back to its original content. Still, many will view it as less “natural.”
“When process and content are dissociated, processing appears to be more important” to “natural” advocates, the authors say.
In a way, naturalness has moral meaning to Westerners, according to the paper, “Actually, natural is neutral.” Mainly, people think naturalness is morally superior.
Scott and Rozin wrote the article before the pandemic, but “I’ve wondered if it can be applied to the psychology of people’s reactions to coronavirus,” Scott said.
“Some people infer coronavirus is a deliberate product of human creation. It’s as though people are deeply reluctant to believe something so tragic could be caused mostly by nature.”
The issue plays out clearly in the resistance to genetically modified (GMO) foods, Scott says, even as evidence suggests GMO products are as safe as conventional foods and can have advantages in disease resistance, shelf life and nutrition.
The people who hold the most extreme views opposing GMO foods think they know the most about GMO food science. But they actually know the least, according to research Scott and others conducted.
“The moral aspects of GMO opposition suggest that the innovation of CRISPR, which makes genetic editing more targeted, precise, accessible and affordable, might be met with similar opposition,” Scott and Rozin write in their new paper.
Believing nature is benevolent causes people to overlook its dangers, they say.
“The central point is that many people believe natural things are good for humans,” Scott says. “Sometimes that is true, but sometimes it is not.
“This deeply held belief in the benevolence of nature causes people to focus on risks caused by humans, even in cases where risks caused by nature are equally dangerous.”
Consider pesticides. “We focus on thoroughly testing and regulating commercial pesticides,” the authors write. “Yet plants naturally produce pesticides to protect themselves from fungi, insects and animal predators. In fact, 99.99% of the pesticides we consume (by weight) are natural.”
The point is not to scare people about the amount of natural pesticides they consume, Scott said. “I want to point out the imbalance between how much we talk about and focus on synthetic pesticides and what proportion of our diet they comprise.”
The authors also point to natural and herbal health products. For instance, in the 1990s, some weight-loss remedies contained ephedra, a plant native to central Asia. Ephedra is dangerous, and it was linked to dozens of deaths in the United States before it was banned in 2003. “People did not realize that this natural, amphetamine-like compound could constrict blood vessels and increase the risk of stroke.”
Yes, the authors acknowledge, nature brings us wonderful things. Beautiful mountain vistas, waterfall, birds, sunsets.
“It also brings us earthquakes, floods and death itself,” they write. “It does not exist to help us or to harm us.”
In 2011, a tornado destroyed much of Joplin, Missouri. Shutterstock photo