Strategy

Environmental primes: Why traffic noise increased car insurance payments by 11%

Bri Williams /

That background hum your customer hears may be impacting whether they buy from you.

New research investigating the impact of background noise on customers’ willingness to buy car insurance and try new foods has found low pitch sounds trigger customer anxiety, which leads to greater risk avoidance.

The power of environmental primes

The environment in which a decision takes place plays a large, and often overlooked, role in shaping an outcome. I’ve written before about how music, smells and shapes can impact customers, and this latest research reiterates the importance of paying attention to how you shape your customers’ environment.

Hypothesising that low pitch subconsciously primes people to perceive threat, Lowe, Loveland and Krishna were interested in whether this would result in greater risk avoidance. Across a series of seven studies, the researchers varied the pitch of background noise between low (below 250 Hz) and moderate (between 250 and 1000 Hz) levels.

In one task, participants were asked to complete a computer survey on financial choices. Sine waves were played through a hidden speaker at a level they could not consciously hear. Those in the condition where the waves were at a low pitch took significantly fewer financial risks than those in the moderate condition.

In another, participants were asked to listen to and evaluate a 35-second ad for car insurance. In the ad where background traffic noise was set at a lower pitch, customers expressed a willingness to pay $98.98 for the insurance, reducing their perceived risk. When the background traffic was set at a moderate pitch, this dropped to $88.63. An 11% difference based on imperceptible sound levels!

Moving out of the lab, the researchers set up an experiment in a self-serve yogurt store, inviting people to sample as many flavours as they wished before making a choice. Those in the low pitch environment tried 1.26 flavours on average before committing to their preferred, whereas those in a moderate pitch sampled only 0.9 flavours.

I don’t know about you, but I’m both excited and terrified of research like this. I am excited because it shows how we can more effectively engage our customers, but terrified by the ethical boundaries it dances along.

What gave me some comfort is how easy it can be to counterbalance these effects. Across the studies in which the researchers pointed out the background noise and gave a benign reason for it (such as, “you might notice a hum because our speaker is broken”), any perceived, non-conscious threat was removed and the differences between low and moderate pitch levels were attenuated.

Implications for you

As the researchers note, “background sound in retail environments and marketing communications can alter a customer’s comfort level, and value placed on products that have the potential to reduce risk and their desire to try products before purchase to decrease risk.”

In other words, priming anxiety can be advantageous if you are in the business of risk reduction, like insurance and healthcare, but problematic if you are trying to get your customer to commit to something they cannot try first.

As this latest research affirms, priming is one of the most powerful tools of behavioural influence. You are susceptible, I am susceptible, and your customer is susceptible. Please use it responsibly.

NOW READ: Will Smith and the art of influencing people subconsciously

NOW READ: Thin products for fat profits? How product and logo shapes affect customers

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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is Australia's foremost authority on behavioural economics applied to everyday business and personal effectiveness. Author, speaker and leading consultant, Bri can make your life easier through behavioural science. More at www.briwilliams.com.au.

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