Feeling Out of Control? Why Certain Products Make You Feel Better

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Not to toot our own horn, but doesn't this cover make you feel calmer?

You know how you feel more in control of your life when your surroundings are neat and orderly? There’s something to that, according to a study by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

When people’s sense of personal control is threatened, they tend to seek order and structure in their environments, posits Keisha M. Cutright, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. A logical, organized environment comforts people and keeps them from feeling that their lives aren’t being governed by total randomness or chaos.

Apply that to consumer behavior, Cutright reasons, and you’ll find that those who are feeling less in control are more drawn to structured and orderly products and logos — for example, things that are bounded by thick borders, frames and other sharply defined edges. “Boundaries, by their very nature, dictate where things belong and consequently represent the establishment of order and structure in the environment,” Cutright writes. “The role of boundaries might be colloquially paraphrased as providing a sense that ‘there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.'”

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After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, people faced a heightened awareness of their vulnerability and lack of control, Cutright notes. To cope, they increased support for the government, reaffirmed their religious beliefs — and did a lot of spending on consumer goods. Simultaneously, the author says, there was a noticeable shift in the types of goods that were being introduced to the market:

Specifically, it has been suggested that America’s reaction to its vulnerable state was reflected in a shift away from visually open, flexible, and translucent products to the more structured and tightly bounded products (with their sharp edges, tight corners, and opaque packages) that captured design awards and accolades in the year that followed [9/11].

In a series of experiments, Cutright demonstrates that people with a lower sense of personal control indeed tended to prefer products with distinct boundaries. In one study, students were subjected to loud, grating noises like sirens, bells and alarms; half of the participants were given a remote control and told they could turn off the noise if they wanted, while the other half were given no such choice. (The students were led to believe that the experiment was about cognitive performance in the face of distraction and were asked to solve math problems while listening to the din.)

Afterward, as a reward for participating, the researchers offered students their choice of postcards: one had a thick border framing the image; the other had the identical image, but without the border. The researchers found that those who had been exposed to noise without any choice were far more likely to select the bordered postcard than students who had been given the remote control.

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In subsequent studies, Cutright used a variety of measures to manipulate participants’ feelings of control, then tested their preferences for structured versus unstructured objects and environments, including bordered and unbordered brand logos and product packaging as well as shopping environments that were orderly versus those in which products were haphazardly scattered about. In all cases, people who were made to feel lacking in control were more likely to seek structure outwardly.

The findings may not only inform product design, but also shed light on consumer psychology when it comes to certain intangible boundaries. “For example, consumers may become less likely to allow brands to stretch beyond a particular space in brand extensions and partnerships,” Cutright writes.

The author’s advice to marketers is that consumers today, facing an uncertain financial climate, terrorist threats and unpredictable natural disasters, are likely seeking small comforts wherever they can. “Marketers should take heed of consumers’ need for structure and acknowledge the value and beauty of boundaries,” she writes.

Of course, some of us already figured that.

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Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.