Explaining the complicated case of consumer cognition

You’ve probably heard about studies where scientists use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans to see what areas of the brain are lit up in response to a particular stimulus. While we cannot yet use this type of study to determine ways to encourage guests to book your hotel, the studies have begun to identify ways that the brain operates.

For instance, these studies have shown that the brain always seeks the most efficient or quickest way to make a decision. That is, the brain dislikes hard work! If we combine the fMRI data with existing knowledge about cognitive processes, we can make the consumers’ travel-planning job easier, and perhaps encourage them to consider a particular hotel or restaurant.

A new study from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) has started to unravel some of this complexity. To find out what people were thinking when they were planning a trip, researcher Kimberly Williams asked groups of people to state what they were thinking step-by-step as they decided where to go and where to stay.

The results are intriguing, as detailed in “Consumer Thinking in Decision-Making: Applying a Cognitive Framework to Trip Planning,” a study which is available at no charge from the CHR’s website.

The cognitive framework that Williams applies is used in education to determine how people learn, but education is not all that different from the effort consumers make to “learn” about a hotel or destination.

For example, consumers make choices based on the context of their trip (which is why a personal trip is so different from a business trip), and they determine the sequence of events for the trip, as well as weighing the attributes of various hotels.

Spatial reasoning, or the location of different things, is also a large consideration. Hotel marketers and destination planners will recognize some of these thinking processes, even if we don’t specifically name them.

Here is where the fMRI and other research findings come in. Two aspects of brain functioning are essential to an understanding of trip-planning processes. These are the social context of the trip and the brain’s attempts to operate as efficiently as possible.

For the “lazy” brain, any effort that the industry makes to simplify decision making and booking processes should be well received, including making information easily available on-hand. The industry could also study more about how to encourage social influences, perhaps by facilitating group interaction as people plan trips.

Needless to say, this is all a work in progress, and we have already used social science research to infer a lot about the way people think from their actions (such as with conjoint analysis).

However, the more we specifically understand about consumer thinking, the better the travel-planning process will go for all concerned.