Can a photo of someone joining their union cause you to want to join as well?

March 27, 2012

What causes people to imagine joining their union? Can simply showing potential members a picture of someone filling out a membership application form affect the extent to which they imagine actually joining?

This is a question — modelling the desired behaviour — that academics Ryan Elder and Aradhna Krishna from Brigham Young University and the University of Michigan sought to answer. Using the latest models of cognition and perception, Elder and Krishna, look at how showing customers how to use a product visually actually increases purchasing intentions.

This theory is called “grounded cognition”, which holds that:

… our bodily states, actions, and even mental simulations are used to generate our cognitive activity (Barsalou 2008). One of the more prominent findings within this literature is the effect of bodily states on persuasion. For instance,Wells and Petty (1980) show that participants nodding their heads up and down (vs. side to side) leads to increased persuasion of an editorial message. Additionally, participants holding a pen between their teeth (facilitating the muscles used during smiling) evaluate funny cartoons to be funnier than when holding a pen between their lips (limiting the use of muscles used during smiling; Strack, Martin, and Stepper 1988).

The most recent research into embodied cognition look at “metaphorical transfers of meanings”. For example, holding a warm cup of coffee before meeting someone makes you more likely to perceive “warm” social characteristics positively, compared to holding a cold cup of coffee. Similarly, people who were excluded from social activities were more likely to perceive the ambient temperature as colder than those not being socially excluded.

What Elder and Krishna do however is tie the cognitive model of “grounded cognition” to marketing, specifically the effects on purchasing intention. They show, across four studies, that “mental stimulation” — or “re-enactment of perceptual experiences” — results in subjects wanting to purchase a good or service more than those who did not experience the re-enactment.

Grounded cognition is a fascinating concept — and it ties strongly into the more popular political work of people like George Lakoff, who strongly argue that our thinking is intimately tied to our physical selves as opposed to being an abstract, ethereal process.

The theory of grounded cognition—as related to mental simulation—posits that our initial perceptions of objects, both conscious and nonconscious, are stored in memory and are simulated or played back on subsequent encounters with not only the object itself but also representations of that object, such as verbal and visual depictions. For example, when we eat a chocolate, the brain encodes and integrates all of the different sensory perceptions related to the chocolate (e.g., how it looks, what it feels like when you bite into it, what it tastes like on your tongue). When we later produce knowledge of chocolate, we mentally simulate prior perceptions associated with the chocolate, leading to neural activation of many of the same sensory regions of the brain active during perception.

This visual depiction doesn’t just fire the sensory parts of our brain. What we see visually is used to fire up our motor responses. Research using brain imaging showed that simply viewing an object led to similar neural activity as using the object:

Thus, when participants see an object held with a precision grasp like a grape versus a power-grasp object like a banana, they respond faster to the former when using a precision grasp (mimic condition) and faster to the latter when using a power grasp (mimic condition). When participants see an object oriented toward the right versus the left hand, they respond faster with the right hand (mimic condition).

The research by Elder and Krishna show that visual stimuli (for example, products), can result in mental stimulation of motor activity (e.g. interacting with the product), and has a large impact on intentions to perform such behaviours. “Indeed, imagined behavior can influence intentions without directly affecting attitudes”, which suggests that that stimulation happens at an unconscious level.

Their four experiments (see the article for details), show that even subtle changes to how a product is presented (for example, whether a spoon in a bowl of soup is on the left or right side) has a heightened effect on purchase intentions. This is due “to the facilitation of mental simulation of interacting with the object.”

Intriguingly, however, this is most assuredly not the only way of facilitating mental simulation. Indeed, many other visual depictions can encourage mental simulation. For example, positioning a pair of warm, fuzzy slippers with the openings toward (vs. away from) the consumer should facilitate mental simulation of interacting with the slippers with one’s feet. Similarly, having the bottle top off of a soda, opening the driver’s door in a car advertisement, or folding down the sheets on the side of a bed positioned toward the consumer are all very subtle ways of facilitating consumer mental simulation. Importantly, these other manipulations would move beyond handedness of the individual and be more broadly applicable in practice.

I’ve already written about some interesting research about how where someone is looking in a picture influences what people read. We’re hard-wired to look at faces and people. And it looks like we’re hard-wired to imagine ourselves interacting with products or services we see — even if they’re just pictures.

Lessons for unions

For unions producing marketing material promoting union membership, this research suggests something very important.

Modelling — that is, providing a “re-enactment” of the desired behaviour — is a powerful visual aid to encouraging people to join. Most union organisers would know about the “herd effect” in joining. There’s a tipping point where if enough people in a lunch-room pick up a pen and start filling out the membership form, most other people in the room will also start filling out the form. This is partly due to the modelling effect.

However, simply showing a photo of people joining — by filling out a membership form — is also likely to positively increase viewers’ likelihood of filling out that form. If you show someone filling out the form, it unconsciously stimulates the motor responses to create a “mimic condition”.

Now, of course, this research is just that — research. While Elder and Krishna show that purchase intentions increase for people viewing the “ideal” visual depiction of a product, it doesn’t mean that marketers can trick people into buying things, or that unions can trick people into joining. It simply states that there is a strong interplay between stimulated experience and direct experience.



  1. Jason Mann - March 28, 2012 at 10:04 am -

    Shows the value of split testing your “join page” on your union’s website to demonstrate social proof!

    • Alex - March 28, 2012 at 10:10 am -

      Absolutely. Also for printed material — for example, put a picture of someone signing a membership form on the actual hard-copy membership form itself.

  2. Ed - March 28, 2012 at 10:17 am -

    Good one! Any research into whether the person pictured should be ‘aspirational’ (young and hot) or relatable (scruffy looking)?

    • Alex - March 28, 2012 at 10:19 am -

      Hi Ed,

      I’m not aware of any research like that — although I’m sure it exists. If you’re trying this with an online joining form, I’d suggest A/B testing with two different photos and seeing which one performs better.


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