Categories and the Psychology Behind Them

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Categories and the Psychology Behind Them

It’s human nature to categorise things – we do it with animals, other people, colours, products, everything – it’s just what we do. It helps us to process concepts faster and we need to do it in order to make decisions.

When we shop for groceries, it helps that the thousands of choices in front of us are categorised for us, and thanks to consumer research, we now know that there is a factor known as the ‘Mere Categorisation Effect’.

In 2008, a scholarly study by Mogilner, Rudnick & Iyengar found that just by existing, a category had a positive influence on the satisfaction of shoppers who were faced with an unfamiliar choice – the content of the category was irrelevant. The study examined magazine and coffee categories both in the laboratory and in the field, where they changed the number of categories, as well as the information available within them and discovered that by providing categories, shoppers felt that they were offered more choice – giving them the feeling that they had more control over their purchases. This feeling of control increased their overall sensation of satisfaction, but the effect was less noticeable amongst regular shoppers.

According to the study, the main factor is not the number of available options, but the differences between the options that was the source of greater purchase satisfaction. The outcome is that brands and retailers should seriously consider what categories actually offer to their shoppers as well as how this is communicated. Regardless of the categorisation (occasion or colour), the message needs to make it immediately clear why this category of products is ideal.

The Mere Categorization Effect: How the Presence of Categories Increases Choosers’ Perceptions of Assortment Variety and Outcome Satisfaction. Cassie Mogilner, Tamar Rudnick, and Sheena S. Iyengar. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35, No. 2 (August 2008), pp. 202-215

For more details, visit my website: or read my book ‘Shoppology, The Science of Supermarket Shopping’.

Phillip Adcock

Shopping Behaviour Xplained