This is your brain on coupons

By Richard Nieva , written on November 19, 2012

From The News Desk

Is your husband worth more than $10? According to a new study, the answer may not be quite so clear to your brain.

Today, the Mountain View, CA-based Web site and noted neurologist Dr. Paul Zak announced the findings of a study that explores the brain’s response to receiving a coupon. In one case, a woman who received a $10 coupon experienced a higher count of the hormone that has been connected to feeling love and trust than another woman experienced before her wedding ceremony.

Of course, different circumstances, chemical makeups and a slew of other factors probably affected these two outcomes, but it proves the point: People like getting coupons. That’s a “duh” statement to an extent — after all, who doesn’t like saving money? — but the crux of the study is in why the brain reacts the way it does.

The experiment took place at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA, where Zak teaches economics, psychology and management. The researchers gathered a group of female students and collected blood samples from them. Then the researchers had them shop on a grocery store Web site that the team created, told the women to buy about $75 worth of items, and as they were checking out, presented them with a $10 coupon for their purchase. The team took the womens’ blood again and compared the differences in chemical makeup.

Researchers also took note of things like heart rate and sweat secretion to gauge the overall effect. The majority of women had spikes in their levels of oxytocin, commonly called the moral or trust hormone, which some doctors say is the reason humans feel empathy or babies cling to their mothers. Zak, affectionately known as Dr. Love around CGU’s campus, has long been researching oxytocin’s effects as part of a discipline called neuroeconomics, which combines economics with neurology, biology and psychology. In the past, Zak’s experiments have found that engaging in social media like Facebook and Twitter increases oxytocin levels, and that higher counts of oxytocin can make people more generous dealmakers.

For businesses, the chemical reaction people have to something like a coupon could mean a shift in marketing strategy is in order. The study found that the brain perceives receiving a coupon the same way it perceives a social interaction. The brain says: This is a gift that came from somewhere (albeit a company, and not an individual). “We’re so engrained to being social creatures that even receiving a coupon online is viewed by the brain as a social experience,” Zak says. “We’re building a relationship with an online shopping site like it’s a personal relationship.”

There are some things businesses can do to leverage this connection. Brands can ditch routine couponing schedules to keep it interesting, so the element of surprise doesn’t wear off for customers. Zak’s analogy: Giving flowers to your girlfriend on Valentine’s Day is good, but giving them to her on a random Tuesday is better. Companies looking to boon brand affection can try a coupon or coupon code campaign. Brian Weisfeld,’s chief operating officer, is operating on the same wavelength. He suggests that all businesses get in the game, as opposed to just the food and home genres that have been mainstays of the couponati.

There’s been recent observational evidence to support the claim that coupons spur an emotional attachment. The TLC show “Extreme Couponing” follows the habits of discount-obsessed shoppers. And when former Apple retail guru Ron Johnson took over as CEO of JCPenney this year, he eschewed coupons for an everyday-low-price approach. Customers complained, and lo and behold, the coupons came back. He has since admitted he made a mistake.

Of course, Zak also has some detractors of his own. Ed Yong, a science writer, disagrees with the characterization of oxytocin as simply the trust hormone. During a marathon Twitter rant earlier this year, Yong dismissed some of Zak’s analysis: “A hypothesis: oxytocin = chemical spotlight that makes social cues more salient. Cld boost trust OR worsen social sensitivity #schmoxytocin,” he tweeted. He also said Zak’s ideas were too TED-friendly.

Zak counters Yong's argument by suggesting the relationship between retailer and consumer is straightforward: the business wants you to buy, and will offer you a discount to do so. There is no conflict to muddy up the relationship or the response.

But there are still a few issues that the study does not address. The coupon that test subjects received appeared very late in the shopping process, right before checkout. It’s unclear how powerful a reaction the coupon might have caused if shoppers had been given the coupon beforehand. It seems reasonable to think a good amount of people first receive a coupon, and then decide to buy — not the other way around.

It also remains to be seen what kind of difference a digital coupon has versus a print one. Zak’s pervious work indicated that the sense of touch is one key element of affecting oxytocin. So it would be interesting to see the effects of clipping coupons out of the Sunday newspaper old-school style, rather than entering a coupon code into a Web site. Zak said they chose a digital experiment because receiving digital coupons and codes have become more and more popular. While true, Weisfeld of says about 90 percent of coupons still come from the newspaper, though that industry is in decline.

In response, Zak says the researchers couldn’t test for all of these things at one time, and that he would try to address some of these things in follow up studies he is planning.

Neuroscience and hormones and digital codes aside, it all seems to plainly tie back to old-fashioned customer service. "It's still as if we're back in the general store, in the old west, and you walk in and the sole proprietor hands you a coupon," Zak says.