Guiltless Gluttony: The Asymmetric Effect of Size Labels on Size Perceptions and Consumption

Given the economic condition nowadays, there’s no denying that most of us go to great lengths just to get the most out of our hard-earned cash. All for the reason of wanting to spend less without sacrificing quality (or quantity), one of the factors we often consider in making our purchases is product size. As a result, we become easily lured by words such as “Bigger,” “Cheaper,” and “Better,” without systematically processing all the available information about a product to determine if it’s really worth buying.

Don’t you just love it when you buy a big bag of air and the company was nice enough to throw in some chips with it? [Source]

As we strive to become smarter shoppers, we have a lot to learn from Aydinoğlu and Krishna’s (2011) study on the effect of size labels on size perceptions and consumption. They proposed an “asymmetric size label effect,” which predicts that consumers are less likely to believe a small size item mislabeled as “large” (or “medium”) than a large size item mislabeled as “small” (or “medium”).

In one of five experiments of the research, eighty-one students from a European university comprised the subject pool. This two-phase experiment made use of a 2×2 mixed experimental design, wherein the dependent variable was perceived size and the independent variables were size label (consistent/inconsistent) and actual serving size (50/60 pieces of nuts in a package). The first independent variable was administered between subjects and the second factor within subjects.

The serving size condition was manipulated by using different amounts of mixed nuts packages. The “small” package contained 50 pieces (~55 grams), and the medium package contained 60 pieces (~65 grams). For the consistent size label condition, the package with 50 nuts was labeled “small” and the package with 60 nuts was labeled “medium”; for the inconsistent condition, the labeling was reversed.

Phase 1 of the experiment involved preconsumption size estimates. Participants were presented with the first package of mixed nuts, and were asked how many grams of nuts they thought the package contained. After a series of filler tasks, participants were presented with the second package and were asked the same question.

Phase 2 involved actual consumption and postconsumption size estimates. Using the larger-size nut package, participants were asked to eat as much as they want from the package. They were given as much time as they wanted for eating, and then were asked to report how many grams of nuts they thought they had consumed.

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Results of phase 1 showed that the small nut package was not perceived as different when it was labeled “medium” compared to when it was labeled “small.” In contrast, the mean perceived weight for the medium nuts package labeled “small” was 51.78 grams, whereas the mean perceived weight for the medium nuts package labeled “medium” was 64.03 grams. Interestingly, the size labeling caused a reversal in perceived size such that when size labeling was inconsistent with actual serving size, the 50-nuts package was perceived to contain 4.27 grams more than the 60-nuts package.

As for phase 2, the results indicated that the participants’ perception of consumption amount was significantly lower when the package was labeled as “small,” compared to when it was labeled as “medium.” It also suggested that while the participants were eating from the nuts package, their preconsumption perceptions of size were lower for those who received the package labeled as “small,” thereby leading them to think that they consumed less compared to what they actually consumed.

This study has many immediate implications for public policy officials, manufacturers and consumers. Public policy officials may take action so as to better educate consumers regarding the effect of size labels on perceived size and consumption. They may also adopt new measures that would regulate standard serving sizes. Meanwhile, corporate social responsibility may dictate that manufacturers be more honest in depicting their products and services.

As for the consumers, this may guide them in making decisions when they purchase. Since the study demonstrated that smaller labels may lead consumers to unintended and uninformed overconsumption, increased awareness on the effects of product size labels is not only helpful in getting the most bang for your buck, but also in attaining the best health for your heart.

Reference:
Aydinoğlu, N.Z. & Krishna, A. (2011). Guiltless gluttony: The asymmetric effect of size labels on size perceptions and consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 1095-1112.

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