STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have signs this morning of how well you may be doing in your personal relationships. A study suggests that people express their feelings about their partners through the brands that they buy. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is all over this story. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what's the study find?
VEDANTAM: Well, the study finds that love can shape the course of brands, and brands can shape the course of love. I talked to Gavan Fitzsimons at Duke University. He's a professor of marketing and psychology. He told me that he and a colleague, Danielle Brick, who's now at the University of New Hampshire, were talking. They both study brands, but one day, they got to talking about romantic relationships.
GAVAN FITZSIMONS: She and I got to talking one day about what happens when the relationship is not going so well. And we started laughing. We're both married, and we started telling stories about our partners and the ways that they irritated us. And we thought, well, wouldn't it be interesting if people picked brands that they knew their partners hated? And we both burst into laughter, and then we're like, wait a second.
INSKEEP: Because they both had done this?
VEDANTAM: Well, because they both thought this might actually be a research hypothesis. (Laughter) So they ran a series of experiments, Steve, to examine whether people's feelings about their partners affect the way they make decisions about which brands to purchase. They found, first of all, that when people remembered a time when they felt frustrated with their partner, they seemed to prefer to buy different brands. And people induced to feel frustration about a partner made very specific brand choices relative to the brands preferred by their partner.
FITZSIMONS: When people are frustrated, they make dramatically more choices that are oppositional, that are against what their partner would want them to buy. So if my wife is a Diet Pepsi fan, and she has frustrated me in some way, I will choose Diet Coke. And in fact, we find that oftentimes, people in the frustrated conditions will actually choose brands they personally don't like to spite their partners.
INSKEEP: Meaning I totally hate Pepsi, and I'm going to buy it anyway. I'm going to drink it anyway because the other person is a Coke person.
VEDANTAM: Precisely. Now, it's actually even more pathetic than that. What Fitzsimons and Brick find is that many of these brand decisions are being made in situations where the person's partner has absolutely no knowledge of what brand the person might be choosing.
INSKEEP: Happening in secret. But is there something - I mean, this sounds petty. But is there something real being expressed here, a concern that people have?
VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly right. So you're frustrated with your partner. You know your partner likes Starbucks coffee. So on your way to work, you stop and buy coffee at Dunkin Donuts. No one other than you knows about this act of defiance. The researchers find a couple of things that are interesting here, Steve. The people who are likely to behave this way are often people who feel powerless in their relationship. So, you know, you feel you're not being heard. You express your frustration through this kind of low-key oppositional behavior. The second thing that they find is that people often feel better after these acts of defiance. So it may be some kind of venting mechanism.
INSKEEP: It's a safety valve. I wonder if marketers could take advantage of this. You know, you could have a commercial where maybe there's a woman there and her husband is drinking Pepsi, and it's actually a commercial for Coke.
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Well, that's a pretty good idea for an ad, Steve. But from a marketing point of view, you'd have to figure out how someone is feeling on the inside about their partner, figure out what brands the partner likes to buy and then sell the opposing brand to the person - not easy to do. This might actually be more useful when it comes to psychotherapy and counseling. If you see a couple deliberately choosing opposing brands of soda, it might give you a window into what's happening behind the scenes.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam.
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