Shopping used to be a relatively solitary endeavour, or a local one at least. You might compare your purchases with friends, but the reach of your activity was relatively limited. The web has certainly changed that, and now we can easily compare what we buy with our friends, and in the case of sites such as Groupon, with complete strangers.
Has this had an impact on our shopping behaviour though? Researchers from Ohio State University believe it has, and not in a good way (for you at least).
The researchers simulated various online auctions to try and see the role the other bidders had on our own behaviour. In some of the auctions, people were fully aware of the other people they were bidding against, so they knew whether they were similar to them, or indeed dissimilar. Other auctions were blind, in that people were bidding against complete strangers.
Before the bidding commenced, the participants were primed by the researchers by completing a word search that involved competitive words such as ‘battle’ and ‘challenge’.
They found that bids were lowest when people believed they were competing against others like themselves. When they were competing against people known to be dissimilar, the bids were nearly twice as high. The highest bids of all however came when they were competing against complete strangers.
“They automatically assumed that if they didn’t know anything about this person they were bidding against, it must be someone who is not like them,” the researchers said. “That’s different from how people approach strangers on other websites.”
These findings were replicated in a 2nd study using a real world context. This time, participants were told they’d be bidding on either eBay Auctions, or a site called Gamecock Auctions (Gamecock is the mascot of the university the participants studied at). So one was clearly anonymous, whilst the other implied similarity.
Just as before, the results showed that people were less aggressive in their bidding when they believed their rivals to be similar to themselves.
The findings are a classic case of in-group/out-group psychology and clearly suggest that if you want to get a great deal on your shopping, you’re probably better off hunting on a niche special interest site where your rivals are more likely to be just like you.
“You need to be aware that, whether you mean to or not, you will naturally see other anonymous bidders as different from you. That will get the competitive juices flowing and you might end up paying more than you really want,” they said.