The aisle wars

Weapon 4: Looking down

Weapon 4: Looking down

I don't know about you but when I think of science experiments, I think of mad professors with impossibly thick glasses and vaguely European accents trying to create some weird insect-human hybrid using machines that run on lightening and the blood of children.

Those with more mainstream movie tastes may associate science experiments with their high school chemistry classes, where some poor, harried teacher was given the joyless task of teaching a group of spotted teens the finer points of acid-base titration.

But science experiments need not be limited to the fevered imaginations of B-grade movie directors or consigned to some distant period in our past; they're something we can do daily and without needing complicated (or blood devouring) machines. Not convinced? Well, let's try one now.

Go outside, look up at the sky, and write down everything you think about. Once you're done, look down at the ground and once again record all the things you think of.

Finished? Great. So, what did you think about?

If you looked up while it was dark outside, your thoughts may have turned to the stars and the possible bodies orbiting them, of the potential for life to exist somewhere in that vast expanse of inky darkness, of galaxies and parallel universes and whether our species is the culmination of a billion seemingly haphazard genetic mutations spaced across millennia or simply a collection of ones and zeroes stored in a computer simulation. You would be thinking, in other words, about big, abstract concepts.

When you looked down, different thoughts may have come to mind. You may have thought about the smell of dirt after the first rain, the sound that autumn leaves make as they crunch underfoot, and how the jittery movements of ants differ to the slinky scuttle of millipedes. Put differently, you would be thinking about more tangible, concrete matters.

At first glance, the idea that we engage in abstract thinking when we look up and concrete thinking when we look down may seem deeply non-intuitive. And yet, when presented in a certain light, there is a certain logic to this idea. When we look up, it's generally to view distant objects that cannot be immediately touched or grasped, so is it any wonder that we would use higher-order thinking when considering those objects? In contrast, when we look down, we typically find ourselves looking at objects that are close enough for us to reach down and touch, prompting us to think about the more tangible properties of those objects.

Repeated often enough, this association between looking up (for far objects) or down (for near objects) and the type of thinking processes we adopt becomes, like a river running across rock, slowly etched into our neural pathways. That is, we begin to engage in abstract thinking not just when we are looking up to see a distant object; we do it whenever we look up. And as was demonstrated in a recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research, this association between abstract thinking/looking up and concrete thinking/looking down can have important implications for how we evaluate products.


Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve just experienced a grade 1 medical emergency: we’ve run out of peanut butter. We grab our keys, walk down to the shops, and stand in front of a large selection of peanut butter brands. We see that our usual brand has sold out, so we start looking at the other options available to us. The question is, which one should we buy?

When making choices such as these, we tend to evaluate the available options according to their desirability and feasibility. Desirability refers to the perceived outcomes of our choice. In the context of peanut butter, desirability will likely involve considering things like taste and texture and whether we can use it to battle superheroes. Because these brands are unknown to us, however, we must anticipate these outcomes using only the information available to us, making this a relatively abstract process.

Feasibility evaluations are different in that they focus on what will be required for us to achieve our desired outcomes. In the case of our peanut butter evaluation, this will involve considering issues such as the price and size of the available brands. Thankfully, this information is often easier for us to evaluate, making it more concrete in nature.

As we’ve already established, looking up encourages abstract thinking, so when we’re motivated to look up, we tend to place greater emphasis on brands with desirable, rather than feasible, attributes. The opposite occurs when we look down; in such situations, we place greater emphasis on brands with feasible, rather than desirable, attributes. The brand attributes we value therefore depends, in part, on whether we’re looking up or down.


So far, this discussion has been fairly theoretical, and some of you may be wondering how exactly it applies to retail weaponry. Two words will hopefully convince you of its relevance: supermarket shelves.

Supermarket shelves are one of the most active battlefields in the retail environment, with brands spending considerable effort and resources to have their brands placed in locations where they will be in easy sight and reach of consumers. In many settings, this means jockeying for a position on the middle shelf.

While the middle shelf is the most coveted spot, we will still often scan the full height of a supermarket shelf when evaluating products. And unless you’re a crawling babe or towering giant, this will involve looking both up and down. With this in mind, and given the thought processes associated with looking up vs. looking down, there may be substantial value in having your product placed on either the top or bottom shelf, especially if you’ve been unable to secure a spot on the middle shelf.

For an example, imagine that we've made a phone with a beautiful user interface but few third-party apps. (Cough. Windows phone. Cough.) In this example, placing the phone on a high shelf would be preferable because a consumer who is looking up will use abstract thinking and consequently value desirability (beautiful user interface) over feasibility (few third-party apps). And if we were looking to encourage someone to purchase a product that had strong feasibility-type features but was not especially desirable? Simple: just place that brand on the bottom shelf and motivate consumers to look down.

You can see how these findings could benefit firms. But from a consumer perspective, these findings prompt a more sobering thought: firms can shift our style of thinking simply by encouraging us to look up or down. And in so doing, firms can manipulate how we evaluate their brands.

All of a sudden, neck braces that limit how much we can move our head seem more like defensive armour than nuisance…

Weapon 5: #4 of 100

Weapon 5: #4 of 100

Weapon 3: The Allen key

Weapon 3: The Allen key