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Current Research
(July 2024)

Here in the Consumer Change Lab, we're currently studying questions like:

How can firms get customers to return?

Firms often struggle to retain repeat customers, even when customers enjoy their initial purchases. We study this problem by diving deeper into the psychology underlying consumers' return decisions in the first place. For example, we document various ways in which consumers appear to want to "wait for the right time" to return to desired consumption experiences, even at added present costs. Thus, to improve retention, our research suggests firms could strategically frame return opportunities to better match the moment. Creating a repeat customer requires more than providing a great initial experience—it also requires providing a befitting return experience.

Recent example papers:


  • Hagen and O'Brien (under review, JCR), "Lost Time
    Undermines Return Behavior"


  • Li, Hsee, and O'Brien (2023, JMR), "'It Could Be Better'
    Can Make It Worse

  • Winet and O'Brien (2023, JPSP), "Ending on a Familiar
    Note: Perceived Endings 
    Motivate Repeat Consumption"

For example, the figure to the right shows the key results of
Study 1 from Hagen and O'Brien (under review, JCR). We
assessed c
onsumers' return behavior to various hedonic
activities following COVID-19 shutdowns. The longer the gap
had felt to consumers, the more consumers freely chose
to delay their returns even further to "wait for the right time."


How can firms "stay new" and keep delighting customers over time?

A core question in consumer research entails how repeated exposure affects consumers. Traditionally, consumer research tests outcome effects (e.g., whether ad repetitions increase purchasing). We take a more psychological approach that examines experience effects in tandem (e.g., what exactly changes in consumers' minds across ad repetitions?). We find that helping consumers pay attention makes repeated exposure not so repetitive after all—consumers find new things and make new connections that they miss at initial exposures. And the more novelty consumers discover across repetitions, the more they show classic outcome effects (e.g., increased purchasing).

Recent example papers:


  • Hong and O'Brien (under review, JCR), "Is Hedonic Adaptation Really So Pervasive? The Case of Measurement Effects"

  • O'Brien (2021, Consumer Psychology Review), "A Mind Stretched: The Psychology of Repeat Consumption"
    *ISSEP Best Paper Award 2023

  • O'Brien (2019, JPSP), "Enjoy It Again: Repeat Experiences Are Less Repetitive Than People Think"

For example, the figure above shows the key results of Study 1 from O'Brien (2019, JPSP). Visitors at a Chicago museum went through an exhibit. We then randomly assigned them to merely imagine going through again vs. to actually go through again. Repeat visits were more enjoyable than visitors expected, driven by discovered novelty.


How can firms excite customer expectations?

Consumers today face change everywhere—from ever-advancing gadgets and AI technologies to ever-newer media offerings and popular trends. How do consumers keep up? Our research suggests they don't. We study change perception processes that make it hard for consumers to appreciate product change. Our research shows how firms can target these processes to help consumers better appreciate the firm's present and future offerings.

Recent example papers:


  • Wang and O'Brien (data collection nearly complete; writing
    for JCR), 
    "How Will Today's Marketplace Look Tomorrow?
    Consumer (Mis)Perceptions of How Products 'Age' Over Time"


  • O'Brien (forthcoming, Psychological Review), "A Flexible Threshold
    Theory of Change Perception in Self, Others, and The World

  • Klein and O'Brien (2018, PNAS), "People Use Less Information
    Than They Think to Make Up Their Minds"

For example, in Wang and O’Brien (writing for JCR), we ask consumers to compare products in the present era (e.g., technologies, household goods, media, hairstyles, brand logos) to equidistant ones from past and imagined future eras. We find consumers think the future will look similar to the present despite realizing the present looks different from the past. The figure above shows sample results for brand logos. Moreover, this affects consumer behavior. We find consumers choose to buy present products and adopt present trends not just because they think this will provide immediate present value (which presumably is correct)—but also because they think this will provide distant future value (which may often be incorrect in today's rapidly changing marketplace). Drawing attention to future change helps consumers calibrate their expectations and make purchases that can provide longer-lasting value.

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