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'Act like a robot': What doctors can learn from B.C. condom study

B.C. researchers find customers avoid emotional interactions when buying condoms and menstrual products — results that could offer lessons for doctors looking to communicate with patients.
When buying blush-inducing items, going through self-checkout is often picked, according to new research out of UBC.

Customers looking to pick up condoms or menstrual products at the store are most likely to go through self-checkout, B.C. researches have found.

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, JoAndrea Hoegg and Darren Dahl — both from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business — found customers purchasing embarrassing products do everything they can to avoid any emotional or judgmental interactions.

That includes what Hoegg described as a “mental process of mechanistic dehumanization,” where customers think of the person at the checkout as less than human.

“It doesn’t do much to help,” said Hoegg, who researches marketing and behavioural science. “You’re still embarrassed.”

The research group, which also included two researchers from China, first compared sales data of customers purchasing daily items like detergent and gum. Then they compared it with people who bought condoms and menstrual products.

Unsurprisingly, said Hoegg, most people buying the “embarrassing products” opted for the self-checkout.

Next, researchers contracted a survey company to poll people across North America and Europe on a series of hypothetical situations. The respondents, which included people from a range or ages and income levels, were given a hypothetical situation where they were looking for a laundry service to get a stain out of a pair of pants.

In one case, the stain was from coffee; in another, it was due to incontinence. Respondents then were given a choice of two laundry services, one that had reviews raving about friendly customer service and another that was equally competent but whose workers just focused on the job.

“What we find is when it's incontinence stain, and it's embarrassing, they're choosing the more robotic service provider,” said Hoegg.

The researchers also hired an actor to approach people on the street and ask them to fill out a survey. Again, the questions were about gum and condoms.

“They asked a whole bunch of information about your habits with the product and the questions sort of get a little bit more personal, and obviously for condoms, more embarrassing,” said Hoegg.

“Questions like: ‘What size are you purchasing?’ and ‘What size of package?’ and ‘How often do you use these?’”

In some cases, the actor would deliver the questions in a friendly way, with lots of eye contact and rising and falling cadence in their voice. In others, the actor had a more robotic tone and avoided being too personal.

The more robotic the delivery, the more information the person tended to give about their purchase and use of condoms. Hoegg says the results could have significant implications for customer service training in stores, where employees are often told to be friendly to all customers.

“If they're buying condoms at 7-Eleven, or you know, the grocery store or wherever, just get them through the register. Don't make small talk, don't smile and engage,” said Hoegg.

“Be more like a robot.”

In higher stakes interactions, such as at the doctor’s office or with a pharmacist, training professionals to adjust their demeanour during potentially embarrassing situations could help patients share important medical information.

Hoegg said the trends tended to repeat across multiple cultures, but that more work is needed to be done to investigate how people react to some of the most serious interactions.

“All the things we tested weren't very serious. We weren't talking about major medical issues.” she said. “I suspect — I don't know, we never tested it — but if it's something really serious, you may want a personal connection because maybe fear would be overriding embarrassment.”