When consumers feel powerless about a situation, their attitude changes

cropped-ubc_20160915_9126I came across Dr Kristin Laurin’s work on rationalisation when she participated in episode 125 of the You Are Not So Smart podcast.


She found that people’s core beliefs change when they feel powerless about the situation that they find themselves in. This occurs via a process of rationalisation – i.e., we try to find reasons to tell ourselves that the situation is not as bad as we once thought.



These were some of the examples discussed in the podcast.

  • In San Francisco, USA attitudes towards a ban on the sale of plastic water bottles were much more negative before the law came into effect than afterwards.
  • In Ontario, Canada people’s recollections of how much they used to smoke in bars in the past changed dramatically after a law banning smoking in such spaces was implemented. Specifically, they recalled smoking far less when asked about their past behaviour after the new law than when asked before the new law.
  • In the USA, people’s perceptions of Donald Trump (across the political spectrum), were higher immediately after inauguration than immediately before inauguration. This change in perceptions occurred even for those that thought that the inauguration had gone really badly.
  • Support for same sex marriage in public opinion polls was lower before it was legalised than afterwards.


Why do our perceptions change?

Dr Laurin says that we rationalise our circumstances to help us feel better about our own situation. For instance, smokers convince themselves that they were not significantly inconvenienced by the new law, because they did not smoke that much, anyway. Or, voters try to cope with the prospect of an unwanted president for 4 years by emphasising his qualities.


In a way, it is a survival mechanism. That is, when people feel that they can’t escape their current situation, they change their own minds in order to cope with the new normal.


I wonder if this is the mechanism that explains why there have been hardly any changes to people’s use of Facebook (including mine), even after the Cambridge Analytica’s scandal. I.e., have our perceptions of how much and what we share changed? Or, perhaps, we tell ourselves that we like profiling and targeting anyway?

2 thoughts on “When consumers feel powerless about a situation, their attitude changes

  1. I believe our “pain threshold” just grows with more being thrown at us. Just remember our conference talk on digital footprints for kids, Ana and the reaction of people. I see those people now pushing the boundaries of privacy even further, in an unfavourable way.


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