We live in a world where cars can drive themselves, home systems turn off the lights before bed, and a virtual personal assistant can send your texts. Tasks are becoming increasingly easy for us, but at what cost?
In product development, automation is a widely used process that eliminates or decreases the need for human participation while improving efficiency for consumers. We use these automated products mindlessly because they have become an integral part of our everyday life. While delegating the task affords convenience, it reveals a potential dark side by threatening customers’ identities and felt ownership over a product.
In “Examining post-purchase consumer responses to product automation,” University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Leah Warfield Smith, Randall Lee Rose, Alex R. Zablah, Heath McCullough, and Mohammad Salijoughian analyze the negative effects of automation. Task automation has seeped into a variety of product categories such as lawn mowers, pet feeders, baby rockers, and cars through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Because consumer demand for such products is likely only going to intensify, this study aims to offer managers guidance on how to counter its dark side by providing consumers with temporal and spatial control over a product.
Psychological Ownership Effect on Consumer Product Responses
Smith and her coauthors use psychological ownership as a lens to explore consumers’ responses to automation after they purchase a product. Psychological ownership theory examines the implicit or explicit sense of ownership of an object. The feeling that something is “mine” represents a cognitive and affective state of felt ownership toward a particular object. The theory examines how consumers engage in word-of-mouth marketing, how consumers value the product, and the demand for the product in the pre-purchase stage. This study extends previous literature by examining the post-purchase consequences of psychological ownership.
There are three ways people can develop psychological ownership: sense of control over a product, innate knowledge of a product, and investment of self in the product. A sense of control over an object denotes the consumers’ ability to access a product when wanted, use it as desired, and/or physically manipulate the product through touch. Delegating tasks to machines depletes this sense of control, so automation thus lowers consumer feelings of psychological ownership.
Intimate knowledge, or getting to know how a product works, is easy to do when a product has visible moving parts such as appliances, bicycles, and automobiles. A traditional vacuum, for example, gives cues to users such as its weight increasing as it’s being used or the suction noise it emits confirming that dust is being picked up. An automated product reduces these cues and eliminates the opportunity for a consumer to learn about the product more intimately. Technology dependent products today, such as computers, are much more complex to understand and act as a barrier to intimacy for many consumers.
The last route to psychological ownership is the investment of the self, which refers to the expenditure of time, effort, talents, and/or other resources and interactions with an object. The more consumers interact directly and repeatedly with a product, the more likely investment of the self into the product will occur. The best way to visualize this is called the IKEA effect. The act of assembling a product, like furniture, increases interaction, and the consumer can see a reflection of themselves in the target, feeling their own effort into existence. One of the main concepts behind automated products is limiting human participation. Since engagement with products is reduced, the potential of psychological ownership through this route is lower with automated products.
Decreased psychological ownership has consequences. Previous research has established the influence of psychological ownership facilitating pre-purchase valuation. However, this study looks at what happens after the consumer has had time to interact repeatedly with a product. Specifically, how does psychological ownership affect consumers’ attitudes and behaviors?
With an increase in psychological ownership comes an increase in an emotional attachment to a product. Scholars argue that psychological ownership creates a self-product linkage that increases an individual’s emotional attachment to a product. The same linkage enhances consumers’ assessment of and satisfaction with a product because an evaluation of the product reflects the self.
Psychological ownership makes people feel more responsible for objects. Feelings of ownership can motivate consumers to care for, preserve, and nurture products. Product maintenance behaviors like this will lead a consumer to be more likely to extend their relationship with the product after their purchase, increasing an individual’s brand loyalty and likelihood to repurchase.
The Differences in Identity Motives: Task vs. Technology
There are certain motives that represent individual differences to explain why consumers choose to own certain products. One of those motives is to express their self-identity. Relative to this research, product ownership is a critical way for consumers to affirm and communicate their identity. There are generally two types of identities formed through interactions with a product: task-related identity versus technology-related identity. Task-related identity describes when a consumer’s interests are rooted in how things are done. Technology-related identity means a person defines themself through their ability to manipulate technology.
Consumers with a task-related identity, such as a baker, are less likely to buy automated products, such as an automated bread maker. Task-related identity is often a reflection of an individual’s abilities and captures the extent to which they self-associate in terms of a specific type of work and/or activity they perform. For example, a biker will be less likely to buy an e-bike because it represents a threat to who they are. The stronger the identity, the less the convenience factor becomes relevant to the consumer that automated products provide.
The threat to their identities discourages consumers from attempting to control the product, develop knowledge about the product, and invest themselves in the product. Therefore, task-related identity magnifies the negative effect of automation on psychological ownership.
On the other hand, those who define themselves as early adopters of innovative products will likely see the appeal of automated products. Using the newest technology goes in line with their identity and allows them to utilize this element of their identity. Since it is consistent with their identity, automated products encourage consumer behaviors toward controlling the product, learning about the product, and investing themselves in the product. Therefore, technology-related identity serves to weaken the negative impact of automation on psychological ownership.
Design Affordances: A Way Out
Automation has made tasks seemingly much more doable. The negatives to automation are not enough to stop the tracks and reverse the way products are made. Rather, retailers should focus on design affordances to combat any potential harm. Design affordances are features that encourage consumer interaction with a product. For example, status updates and reminders are affordances that increase communication and lead to activating the intimate knowledge path to ownership.
Products that delegate tasks should be designed in a way that still gives consumers the opportunity to make choices or initiate actions that foster self-efficacy and a sense of control. Even the smallest change helps activate one or more of the three routes to psychological ownership. Smith and her coauthors focus primarily on temporal and spatial design elements.
The first relates to functionality and is a design element that allows consumers to access a product anytime from anywhere. A common example is a home security system app. Many households can monitor the cameras from their phone very easily. Remote access usually increases consumer control over a product and therefore the effect of automation on psychological ownership is less pronounced in these products comparatively.
The second affordance relates to features that allow consumers to control when the automated product operates as well as where and how. For example, automated lawn mowers allow operators to curate a map of their yard with an app to specify the route the lawn mower takes. Spatial control like this allows consumers input into where and how the product operates. It increases their sense of control and their level of investment in the product, and ultimately these products are less likely to interfere in the development of psychological ownership.
Whether or not these design affordances can overcome the detrimental effects of automation on psychological ownership is still contingent to the moderating effects of identity motives. The relationship is to be further analyzed by marketers when choosing their branding for a product. Technology-related identity elements should become more notable when marketing automated products and task-related product features should be downplayed.
Managers should be aware of the threat of automation to their audience. It is a double-edged sword that brings a multitude of benefits to consumers (convenience, efficiency, reliability), but at a high cost. The research finds automation can compromise post-purchase product responses (product satisfaction, brand loyalty). Automation is not going away. However, firms can carefully monitor its effects and enforce programs focused on increasing consumers’ interactions with their products and/or the firm.