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IBS Professor Ebert concludes consumer research

By Joe Vigil

Section: News

September 19, 2014

For most people, watching a movie or reading a book can be a fairly emotionally engrossing experience. Some people may believe that if a story is based on true events, it will have a greater impact on them than if the story was fictional. But the results of a study conducted by Brandeis International Business School (IBS) Professor Jane Ebert suggest that those predictions are generally incorrect. Ebert, in conjunction with NYU Marketing Professor Tom Meyvis, recently concluded a consumer study that found that people’s emotional reactions to hedonic experiences, such as watching a movie or reading a book, will be the same regardless of whether the story is true or fictional—despite their predictions that the true story would affect them more.

“People just think that they will be much more emotionally affected by things that are true versus things that are fictional,” said Ebert. “But what we found in our research time and time again is that it doesn’t matter when you’re in the experience because you get so absorbed by it.”

The studies, which were conducted over the course of six years, focused on whether or not consumers made errors when “forecasting” their feelings about hedonic experiences. To achieve this, one group of consumers was asked to read a true, sad article about a girl that died of meningitis. They were told before reading that the article was either true or fictional, and afterward they were asked to say how emotionally they were affected by the article on a scale of one to nine.

Later, a separate group of consumers read the story and was asked to predict how the story would have emotionally affected them if they had been told beforehand that the story was either real or fictional using the same scale of the previous consumers. Similar studies were later performed that either mixed up when the consumers were told whether the experience was fictional or when they were told to predict how they would react. The study also sometimes replaced the hedonic experience of reading a sad article with the winning of a prize that was either readily available or would be received in a month.

What Ebert and Meyvis consistently found was that the predicting consumers almost always said that people would be more affected by the experience if they were told it was true, or if the prize would be immediately available beforehand. The experiencing consumers, however, responded emotionally almost exactly the same to experiences regardless of their fictional nature.

“I still find the actual result pretty surprising,” said Ebert, who began this study in 2007 after having a conversation with Meyvis during dinner at a conference.

According to Ebert, they had both had “recent emotional experiences in our lives that we were surprised at our reaction.” Ebert and Meyvis were both intrigued as to why this might be, so they decided to research it.

“It’s very hard to pin down the difference between your forecasting and what actually happens,” said Ebert, “and we thought that it was an area of research that hadn’t been particularly studied, so we tried to pin it down in the lab what forecasting errors happen and explain it.”

The study is nearing publication and the end of its seven-year process.

“Not all studies take that that long, but a lot of stuff happened in that time,” said Ebert.

During this time period, Ebert moved from the University of Minnesota to Brandeis. While at Brandeis, students Aneece Ahn, Jason Greenwald and Lauren Grewal acted as research assistants, the last of whom is now a Ph.D. student in marketing. The professors also experienced several personal changes that caused them to halt the study.

“I moved, he got married, and we both had babies,” said Ebert. “Not with each other. Not that collaborative.”

The study is scheduled to be published in its entirety in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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