Everywhere you look these days it seems that modern commerce has been designed to separate humans from each other. Smartphones keep our attention locked in a virtual realm, online retail allows us to browse and shop without leaving our home, and automated tellers and cashiers seem designed to remove human interaction entirely. But research shows that businesses may be missing a critical tactic — and that refocusing their products on services around the power of human touch provides an opportunity to create enormous social and economic value.
Everywhere you look these days it seems that modern commerce has been designed to separate humans from each other. Smartphones keep our attention locked in a virtual realm, online retail allows us to browse and shop without leaving our home, and automated tellers and cashiers seem designed to remove human interaction entirely.
My research and that of others shows that when people think of what it means to be human, they typically consider two fundamental capacities: conscious experience (i.e., the capacity to feel) and agency (i.e., having thoughts and intentions). Human-to-human interaction is central to this conception. As a result, businesses that try to distance its customers from other humans are missing a critical tactic — refocusing their products on services around the power of human interaction provides an opportunity to create enormous social and economic value.
Human contact has an almost magical power: For example, research shows that holding a spouse’s hand or in some cases even holding a stranger’s hand reduces the aversiveness of painful stimuli (e.g., excessive heat, electric shocks).
A human touch also imbues experiences and products with special significance and so increases people’s perception of the value of those experiences and products. Smart organizations, rather than continuing to automate their services at all costs, would be wise to understand the ways that human presence creates value in the mind of consumers. Let us walk through evidence on the three primary ways human contact matters.
When customers experience an interaction with a business, they want to feel as if their interaction was the result of human agency rather than some abstract automation. Sensing human intention at the root of the interaction is critical because people tend to equate intentionality with purpose and meaning. For example, research by psychologist Kurt Gray shows that people enjoy a massage from a massage chair more when a human controls the massage mechanism than when a computer does — the presence of a human signals intent, which makes the experience more meaningful. Another study of Gray’s shows that people prefer the taste of candy that others have selected for them intentionally (rather than randomly). Other work led by marketing professor Stijn Van Osselaer shows that people will pay more for products such as greeting cards, jewelry, scarves, knives that are handmade versus machine-made because they believe the handmade items are made with intentional love.
One consequence of the digital age and the push toward mass production is that demand for handmade products has increased. This is of no surprise to anyone who has strolled through a bohemian neighborhood to see storefront signs prominently advertising artisanal soaps and mustards, yet the handmade boom is widespread beyond these urban nooks. Business is skyrocketing for ecommerce website, Etsy, a haven for handmade goods and crafts, and its Amazon-branded competitor, Amazon Handmade, continues to grow as well. Market research has even shown that the demand for artisanal, handmade ice cream is projected to grow considerably over the next four years. Can customers really taste the difference between handmade and store-bought ice cream? It is unclear, but the handmade touch seems to create the perception of something special.
Research by Harvard Business School professors Ryan Buell and Michael Norton shows that customers enjoy a sandwich order more when they actually observe the sandwich-maker preparing the food (rather than simply ordering the food and receiving it upon delivery). This increased satisfaction occurs in part because people value products based on the perceived effort exerted toward producing those products — human interaction makes the effort transparent. This tendency, known as the “effort heuristic,” was first demonstrated in research showing that people appreciate a poem, painting, or coat of arms more when they learn the commodity was produced with more (versus less) effort. This is not to suggest that restaurants ask their chefs to clearly thumbprint food items to communicate their labor. Rather, companies could benefit by simply increasing what Buell calls “operational transparency,” indicating the human effort involved in their services.
Food delivery service, Caviar, for example, notifies customers at every phase of the order process, from when the order is received, the food is prepared, and the food is picked up for delivery, including the name of the delivery-person, which ensures the customer knows their food is in good (human) hands. Other work by psychologist Veronika Job and colleagues shows that simple reminders of human involvement increase value. In this work, customers who learned that a brand of gift wrap was “made by people in a small factory in Nebraska” versus those who learned the gift wrap was “made by a small factory in Nebraska” (with no mention of “people”) valued the product more. For many, humans = effort, and effort creates value.
Why do people pay for more auction items that have had physical contact with their owners, and why does increased physical contact predict increased willingness to purchase such items? According to research by psychologists George Newman and Paul Bloom, these tendencies result from people’s magical belief in “positive contagion”— the notion that through touch the owner can instill an object with an authentic essence. Authenticity, like effort and intentionality, creates value, and related work by Newman and Bloom shows that the reason why people prefer purchasing original works of art to perfect duplicates is because of the perceived authenticity imparted through the artist’s touch.
Companies recognize the value of authenticity — whether it is Harley Davidson trademarking the distinct sound of its V-Twin engine, Krispy Kreme donuts boasting that they have kept their same recipe since 1937, or luxury brands like Rolex simply providing a certificate of authenticity. It turns out that one simple way to create authenticity, however, is to emphasize human involvement in the product. Research led by organizational behavior scholar Balazs Kovacs scoured over 1.2 million Yelp reviews of restaurants and found that restaurants that received reviews containing more words relating to authenticity also got higher ratings, a pattern heightened for family-owned restaurants. Kovacs, in a follow-up experiment, showed that people evaluated a restaurant as more authentic when they read about the restaurant as family-owned versus as chain-owned. The simple mention of humans (in this case a family) heightened authenticity, creating additional value.
Given the significance that people associate with human contact, companies can benefit by making the human touch more visible in the production of their goods and services. A human touch signals that companies are operating with intentional purpose, working harder, and acting authentically, all of which create meaning in the minds of consumers. Even in an increasingly human-less age, with driverless cars and worker-less warehouses already a reality, human interactions still matter for consumers.