January 16, 2017 1052 GMT
The research, published in the inaugural issue of Nature Human Behavior, could help to direct public health interventions aimed at encouraging healthier choices, phys.org wrote.
The team analyzed anonymous purchase data from over 280,000 shoppers who regularly bought products including breads, coffees, toilet papers, washing detergents and yogurts. Individual shoppers were represented only by anonymous dataset numbers with no personal or identifiable information.
"We developed a model to predict when somebody is ready to try a new product, such as switching from one brand to another," said Professor Brad Love (UCL Psychology), senior author of the study. "Our model shows that the more people purchase a product, the more likely they are to continue to do so, until they reset the cycle by exploring a new product. To test our theory in the real world, we sent coupons to thousands of people and used the model to predict who would use them. The model worked — people who had recently switched brands were twice as likely to use the coupons to try a new product."
Previous studies using monetary rewards have found the opposite pattern; the longer someone has chosen to receive a reward of known value, the more likely they are to choose an uncertain reward on the next try. The new research shows that this is different with subjective rewards, where choices drive preferences rather than preferences driving choices.
"One way to see it is that someone who drives a BMW becomes a BMW person rather than 'BMW people' buying BMWs," explained Love. "People might like to reflect on why they like certain products and be wary of buying the same brand out of habit. If you're trying to start healthier habits in the New Year, my advice would be to stick with something consistently at the start so you'll be more likely to keep it up in future."
The study also found that shopping behavior was consistent across the different product categories.
"If people show a particular shopping pattern for one product type, they tended to show it for the others as well," said lead author Dr Peter Riefer, who conducted the study for his PhD at UCL and now works at Dunnhumby. "This suggests that people have individual 'exploration personalities' when they shop, which is really remarkable given how different products were. Over a timescale of many years, the rate at which people explore is remarkably stable — people are always exploring at about the same rate. What we find is that within that stability there are these trends in exploration and exploitation."