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Jaren Wilkey, BYU
Photo illustration shows high heels in action as they bring thoughts of balance to a shopper's mind.
If you want to control spending, then just control your spending. If that is your goal, the more direct route would be to just concentrate on that. —Jeff Larson

Try imitating an iconic scene from the 1984 movie "The Karate Kid" where Daniel stands in a perfect "Crane Stance" — one leg off the ground, two hands held high above his head, perfectly balanced and ready to deliver a kick from which there is no defense.

Now go shopping.

If a new study by BYU professors Jeff Larson and Darron Billeter is correct, just trying to do the difficult balancing act of the one-leg Crane Stance is enough to influence what you will buy.

The study, in the current issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, says thoughts about balance push people to make more balanced choices in the products they buy. For example, given the three choices of buying a 50-inch television for $650, a $450 42-inch TV or a $300 32-inch TV, a person who has been primed to think about balance would be influenced to choose the 42-inch set. That middle choice, the one that balances out the cost and features, is the type of compromise that comes from thinking about balance.

The study found that physical actions requiring heightened balance primed people to think about balance and then be more likely to choose the compromise product.

Wearing high heels would also do the trick. Leaning back in a chair while online shopping also has this effect.

"Anything that activates thoughts toward balance has the same effect," says Larson, an assistant professor at BYU's Marriott School of Management. "It doesn't have to be high heels, it doesn't have to be the Crane Stance. You could force yourself to think about balance and it would work just as well."

Studies have looked at priming people with various influences to see how it affected their behavior. Marketers love this sort of thing.

For example, IKEA carefully designed their stores around influencing certain types of buying behavior. The stores intentionally disorient people so they are not sure which direction is which. This makes shoppers more likely to have their defenses down by the time they walk through the part of IKEA that has impulse buys like hangers and other small items.

Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, says there have been studies that show just seeing a credit card logo will influence people to spend more money — even if they have to pay in cash.

Perner says another experiment showed that if you play German music in a grocery store, people are likely to buy more beer. If you play French music, they buy more wine.

Studies also show, Perner says, that people already have a tendency to choose the compromise product. The BYU study found balance concepts tend to make people even more likely to choose the product that balances various things like price and quality.

Road to balance

Larson says he decided to study the balance effect because of the rising number of studies examining how physical things influence thoughts.

"Typically marketers are trying to influence through persuasion, through cognitive things," Larson says. "This research shows there are influences outside the purely cognitive. The physical can influence how people can make decisions."

Other studies looked at things like how the physical experience of warmth is associated with feelings and thoughts of love.

Studies also show that heavier things are associated with importance. For example, if a clipboard weighed more, people would take the contents of a paper on that clipboard more seriously.

Larson says balance is so basic, it would be the foundation for the abstract concepts of parity or equality. But would inducing physical balance episodes lead people to incorporate equality thoughts into their buying decisions?

The study, "Consumer Behavior in 'Equilibrium: How Experiencing Physical Balance Increases Compromise Choice," talks about six experiments that show priming a person to think about balance affects their buying choices.

One experiment had people make choices between three products on a computer screen. Half of the people were told to lean their chairs back so the two front legs were off the floor. Those people chose the compromise product 58 percent of the time. The people who had all four chair legs on the ground chose the compromise product 47 percent of the time — 11 percent less than the other group.

Another experiment had people make choices while playing video games on the Wii. The groups who played balance games like Yoga or penguins sliding on ice chose the compromise products more often than those who just played non-balance focused games.

One test that didn't make it into the final study publication, according to co-author Billeter, had people try on high heel shoes or flats and then take a questionnaire comparing various company brands against each other. Those wearing high heels were more likely to see different brands as equal than those in flats.

Practical use

Although the study may make people consider going shopping while wearing high heels, using balance as a way to reign in high spending may not be the best strategy.

"The real question is whether it will work if you are consciously aware of it," Perner says.

Billeter, who is an assistant professor of marketing at BYU, says balance is just something that influences consumers.

"Our contribution that we have been striving for here is a greater understanding of influences on choice and the connection between our physical experiences and our mental and cognitive decisions," Billeter says. "Just be aware of this. If you just had a balance experience, you might want to think twice to make sure that is really the thing you want to buy."

Even if conscious use of balance awareness works, it may not be the best choice to manage your shopping. Perner says the middle choice may not always be the best choice or the rational one. If a person tends to be thrifty, the balance influence may lead a person to consider a more expensive middle product, for example.

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Besides, except in carefully constructed experiments such as the ones in this study, there are many influences at play in buying decisions.

"There are lots of subtle effects that can influence you," Larson says. "There could be dozens or hundreds of things that could be pushing one way or another."

So what can be more effective than imitating the Crane Stance?

"If you want to control spending," Larson says, "then just control your spending. If that is your goal, the more direct route would be to just concentrate on that."

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