The Bellagio Phenomenon

The Effects of Relaxation on Consumer Behavior

In an article written for, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, continues his exploration into the tangled web of brain science and consumer behavior. In his latest, “Why Being Relaxed Makes Us Spend Too Much Money,” Lehrer explores the effects of relaxation on consumer behavior, using the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas as a case example.

As Lehrer explains, casinos originally adopted the strategy of creating an intentionally uncomfortable atmosphere, with dim lighting and hard-to-find exits, for the purpose of attempting to confuse their patrons and “trap” them into lingering longer at the tables and slots. In 1998, however, the Bellagio was built with a luxurious casino design, creating a comforting, open, and relaxing atmosphere for people to gamble in. The very next year, the Bellagio set a new gaming income record in Vegas…sparking a complete redecoration of the casino community.

The Bellagio Phenomenon

Lehrer goes on to explain what he calls the “Bellagio Phenomenon” – a pattern of behavior that shows that people who are relaxed spend money more freely then those in a less relaxed state. He cites additional research that psychologists have conducted to explore this phenomenon – all providing data to support the same claim. What the studies demonstrate is that when someone feels relaxed they experience a feeling of safety, causing them to think less about the particulars of the situation they are in, and instead focus on the abstract pleasures of the experience. In other words, when someone feels relaxed, they don’t worry about the money they are spending but instead focus on the pleasures that the money is buying them. To put it in brain terms, the safety felt in a relaxing moment transfers a person’s focus from the conscious details of the act (spending money), and allows them to experience the non-conscious emotions and pleasures more fully (potential reward).

The Brain Doesn’t Know Itself

In the world of consumer research, one of the barriers that often stands in the way of uncovering meaningful insights about a consumer’s behavior is the consumer themselves. When asked to evaluate their own behavior, consumers typically focus on the details of their situation instead of explaining the abstract concepts behind what is causing their behavior. This is understandable, as the brain is not designed to know itself. What’s more, the desire to make themselves look good in front of the research moderator often leaves respondents guarded in the words that they use and in the way that they present themselves, leaving the learnings garnered less than insightful.

When we compare the world of research to the “Bellagio Phenomenon” Lehrer maps out in his article, it’s easy to see the possible ramifications of this sort of glimpse into the human mind. If we use the train of reasoning from the article:

Relaxation –> Less Vigilant –> Less Guarded –> Less Concerned about Particulars –> More Inclined to the Abstract –> More Emotionally Open

it would be reasonable to assume that in a research setting, a more relaxed respondent is going to be set up to provide deeper and richer analysis of themselves and their own behavior.

WANTED: Relaxed Respondents

A relaxed respondent, however, is something that can be very hard to come by. Consumer research is generally a fairly stressful experience in which consumers are asked to enter a small room with fluorescent lighting, a wall full of mirrors, and uncomfortable seating in order to share their thoughts and experiences with a group of strangers. Not exactly a warm, inviting atmosphere. So the question then becomes, how do you create a relaxed respondent? Offer massages in the waiting rooms of research facilities? Combine focus groups with a happy hour? Interesting options for sure, but ones that might take facility expenses to a new level.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but in Brandtrust®’s research, especially our Emotional Inquiry® process, we do have our own way of creating a relaxing atmosphere. Before we have respondents take us through their experiences regarding the brand or category they have come in to talk about, we take them through a warm-up exercise in which we ask them to self-select and visualize a moment when they are very relaxed. The purpose of such an exercise is to teach them about the process of visualizing but also to ease their state of mind. It is in this relaxed state…forgetting that they are in a research facility…releasing the concerns of the day…that we are then able to explore the deeper drivers of their behaviors with them. As Lehrer helps us to understand in his article, this relaxed frame of mind truly does help respondents think more abstractly about their memories, and explore the emotions behind their decision making processes.

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