News Release

Rational or experiential? New study highlights differences in thinking styles

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Chicago Press Journals

Consumers approach problems, products, and websites differently according to distinct thinking styles, says a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Authors Thomas P. Novak and Donna L. Hoffman (both University of California, Riverside) say consumers tend to think either rationally or experientially and marketers should design experiences for consumers that allow a good fit between the style and the task.

The authors describe rational thinking as "logical, effortful, and analytic," and experiential thinking as "associative, lower effort, and holistic." Examples of rational activities include work, carefully considered decisions, and goal-directed tasks, while experiential activities include playing, browsing, and impulse buying.

The authors developed a measure called the Situation-Specific-Thinking-Style measure (SSTS), which measured and predicted study participants' performance on a number of tasks, including vocabulary and geometry problems (rational) or activities such as suggesting ways to improve toys or websites (experiential).

"We found that people who reported thinking rationally performed better on rational tasks, and people who reported thinking experientially performed better on experiential tasks," explain the authors. "In addition, the 'wrong type' of thinking actually hurt performance. People who approached a vocabulary or an IQ test problem in an experiential, intuitive manner actually had fewer correct answers than those who approached the problem logically."

Marketers can't read consumers' minds, but they can offer opportunities for different thinking styles to be utilized. "One approach is to design a store or website in a way that provides opportunities for consumers to think either way, and let the consumers choose what to do," the researchers suggest.

"Since some people tend to think more rationally and others tend to think more intuitively, different people will have greater success and happiness with different activities. However, everyone is capable of thinking both ways, and sometimes just nudging yourself to think in a different direction can help you be more successful and feel more satisfied," the authors conclude.


Thomas P. Novak and Donna L. Hoffman. "The Fit of Thinking Style and Situation: New Measures of Situation-Specific Experiential and Rational Cognition." Journal of Consumer Research: June 2009.

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