During times of upheaval do people naturally choose what is familiar or don’t they? The notion of “comfort food” seems to imply that when faced with trying situations people take comfort in certain old favorites that, well, comfort them. This is conventional wisdom and as we know researchers like to question said wisdom. That is what Stacy Wood set out to do and her findings offer interesting implications for marketers.

 

The basic question is whether we favor familiar things during times of change. A series of experiments mainly involving food choices were run to test this. In some, scales were used to measure whether people were going through major life changes and then those people were asked to make a regular or a novel choice. In others, participants were asked to list a few or many big changes currently happening in their lives (that is, change was manipulated rather than measured) and again asked to make regular or novel choices.

Consistently, people going through changes made the more novel choice which is the opposite of what the comfort food idea would predict. In fact in one experiment when participants were asked to make predictions of other people’s behavior they ended up perpetuating the fallacy. That is, people believe the comfort food fallacy, but act in the opposite manner! This was true even when the experiments involve choices other than food (detergent, movies, songs etc).

What does this imply for marketing? People going through life changes (marriage, moving etc) are perhaps more likely to be open to novel and niche products. Identifying such people through appended databases is easy enough and hence provides a way for marketers of such products to acquire new customers.

Stacy Wood is Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. This research was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.