The aisle wars

Weapon 1: Cinnamon

Weapon 1: Cinnamon

We’re all rational purchasers, right? Sure, we have our momentary lapses of judgement – that Hawaiian shirt didn’t just buy itself – but on the whole, we’re careful in our choice of purchases. We ask our friends for advice about which movies to see and what phone to get. We hunt around for the best deals on cars and electronic products. We only buy the things we need, not the things marketers tell us we need. And on the topic of marketing? Forget it – only chumps are persuaded by that stuff!

It’s a nice story to tell ourselves, and a comforting one at that. It makes us believe that we’re above the grubby wheels of commerce, immune to the influence of jingles and slogans and lolcats selling motorbikes. It provides us with a sense of security by helping us believe that we control our little slice of the world more than it controls us. Ultimately, it reaffirms our belief in the rationality of our own behaviour.

Like most nice stories, it’s also more fiction than fact.

Convincing someone they’re not a rational purchaser can be a bit like convincing an 800 pound gorilla to share its favourite toy: painful and probably futile. Who, after all, wants to be told they’re not the logical consumer they thought they were? But if you wanted to try, you’d do worse than to talk to them about cinnamon.

While cinnamon may seem an unlikely prop for demonstrating the potential limits of rationality, a recent study in the Journal of Marketing demonstrated that merely smelling cinnamon can increase a person’s preference for status goods. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for rationality, is it? But to fully understand this effect and what it means for rationality, we need to step into the twisting corridors of the mind.


Cinnamon is what a perfumer might call a ‘warm’ fragrance; when we smell it, we associate it with feelings of warmth. Feelings of warmth, in turn, make us subconsciously think we’re surrounded by lots of people. Why? Imagine yourself catching a train during the morning rush, jammed up against school kids and workers and people with impossibly perfect hair.

Chances are that after a few minutes pressed up against this swaying cross-section of society, you’ll begin to feel more than a little warm.

Our brains are incredibly good at spotting patterns, and these patterns, once identified, become stored in our memory as associations. If we were to put the association we formed on the train into words, we’d come up with something like this:

perceive lots of people around us --> feel warm

Our brains are not only good at spotting patterns, they’re also highly adaptable, playing around with the direction of the associations we’ve formed so that we can recognise and respond to changes in the world around us. The association we formed in response to our experience on the train is therefore also stored in our memory as:

feel warm --> perceive lots of people around us

Putting all of this together, we come up with the following set of associations:

smell cinnamon --> feel warm --> perceive lots of people around us

Remember how I said earlier that the mind is filled with twisting corridors? Well, we haven’t quite reached our destination. You see, when we think we’re surrounded by lots of people, we tend to feel powerless. To understand why, let’s re-join our hypothetical (and still crowded) train.

How do you feel? A little uncomfortable, most likely. Maybe the person holding onto the handgrip next to you is talking loudly on their phone.

Or has a bad case of body odour.

Or both.

You try thinking of ways to escape this sensory onslaught but there’s nowhere else to move and it seems rude to tell a stranger that they should wash more and talk less. So you end up just standing there, secretly fuming. The thing is, that’s just the person next to you. As you look around, you realise that others sardined into your carriage have their own annoying quirks and behaviours. There will be the drink slurpers.

And the not-so-furtive nose pickers.

And those who have declared war on their eardrums.

It’s at this point you realise that although you may want your fellow passengers to drink quietly, keep their fingers away from their nose, and turn down their music, in most cases, you can’t make them do any of these things. And that’s why having lots of people around us can make us feel powerless; it forces us to appreciate that we often have little control over those around us.

Recognising that we can’t always control others is an unpleasant feeling. For one thing, it makes our position in society feel more uncertain because we can’t motivate those around us to act in our own interests. Faced with this realisation, we do what any sensible person would do: we buy status goods.

Say what? Well, bear with me as we navigate one final twisting corridor.

Status goods are any product that, when we purchase or use them, gain the respect or admiration of others. For some, this will mean having a Gucci handbag or wearing an Armani suit. For others, it will mean driving a Toyota Prius.

That’s the thing about status goods: what they are depends on who we're trying to impress. For instance, a group of friends who’ve bonded over a shared love for kitsch products may well consider a Hello Kitty-branded surgical mask to be a status good. Who are we to judge?

In whatever form they come, status goods, by virtue of their ability to gain the respect of others, help the powerless feel less concerned about their position in society. It’s for this reason that many of us purchase and use status products; they help to compensate for our feelings of powerlessness.

So, let’s retrace our steps so we can map out the mind’s twisting corridors:
1.    The smell of cinnamon is associated with feelings of warmth
2.    When we feel warm, we believe we’re surrounded by lots of people
3.    Being surrounded by lots of people makes us feel powerless
4.    Feeling powerless increases our preference for status-related products

And that, dear reader, is how cinnamon can short circuit rationality.


At this point, some of you are probably thinking that while this set of effects is all well and good, you’d never be gullible enough to buy or prefer status goods simply because you've smelt cinnamon. And yes, if you’ve lost the sense of smell, you’d be right. But for the rest of us? Well, don’t be so sure. While the path from smelling cinnamon to preferring status goods is a long and twisting one, the associated effects occur largely outside our awareness. In other words, we may end up purchasing a status good without ever realising that we’ve done so to compensate for our feelings of powerlessness.

If nothing else, this should give us a moment’s pause the next time we feel smug after hearing about some hapless mug who made a poor purchase decision; something as simple as a smell can set in motion a chain of effects that leads us to buy goods we may otherwise not have thought to buy.

So what should we do when retailers spray cinnamon-based scents in their stores to make us prefer status goods? Well, there’s always those Hello Kitty surgical masks…

Weapon 2: Shopping bags

Weapon 2: Shopping bags