New Study Links Appeal of Glossy To Innate Need for Fresh Water

Published on February 5, 2014

Journal of Consumer Psychology to Publish Paper co-authored by Bauer Professor Vanessa Patrick

Evolution may indicate why people are drawn to glossy objects and images, according to research co-authored by a Bauer College marketing professor.

Evolution may indicate why people are drawn to glossy objects and images, according to research co-authored by a Bauer College marketing professor.

Fascinating new research to be published in Journal of Consumer Psychology by a University of Houston professor and two colleagues from Ghent University in Belgium presents an evolutionary theory on why people are attracted to shiny objects.

Associate Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick

Associate Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick

The authors  — Vanessa Patrick of the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business and Mario Pandelaere and Katrien Meert of Ghent University — suggest that the appeal of glossy surfaces may be a reflection of mankind’s age-old quest for fresh water to ensure survival.

“Since fresh water has a shiny surface, being drawn to shiny surfaces may have increased the probability of finding fresh water sources and thus have increased chances of survival,” they write.

To support their hypothesis, the authors conducted a set of six studies that established the preference for glossy in both adults and children. They then delved into the reason behind this attraction, ruling out alternative suggestions.

“This paper shows that our preference for glossy might be deep-rooted and very human,” says Patrick, a Bauer College Associate Professor of Marketing. “Despite our sophistication and progress as a species, we are still drawn to things that serve our innate needs — in this case, the need for water.”

Patrick believes the research could have practical business applications, particularly in marketing.

“Given the globalization of business, marketers are in need of human universals that they can rely on,” she said. “Knowing that the preference for glossy is innate (not cultural) could help a marketer create packaging, logos, brand signatures and product designs that would be effective regardless of cultural differences.”

The researchers set the tone for their study in an evocative introduction:

“Human beings are attracted to glossy objects. Shimmering lipsticks, gleaming cars, dazzling diamonds and sequined gowns conjure up images of the good life.”

But why is that?

First the trio had to rule out that the appeal is related to social behavior and status.

“That appears to be the most obvious explanation,” Patrick said. “But we show that it goes deeper than that.”

The researchers eliminate the socialization explanation by showing glossy versus matte images to 4- and 5-year-olds who were too young to have been socialized into liking glossy.

The authors also cite previous research demonstrating that infants tend to prefer to lick glossy objects over dull ones. The infants and toddlers even crouch on their hands and knees to do so — a posture that mirrors the drinking of water in natural habitats. “This does speak to something very primitive, very basic,” Patrick said.

In another study, the authors explore whether the “preference for glossy simply stemmed from visual appeal.” In other words: Does glossy equal pretty?

Participants in that study were blindfolded and had to rely on touch. Not only did the blindfolded participants prefer glossy to rough paper, but they also “rated an advertised product as being of higher quality when displayed on a glossy versus a non-glossy paper,” the authors report.

In a final study, the authors demonstrated the link between glossy and the need for water by showing that thirsty participants demonstrated a stronger preference for glossy images than non-thirsty ones.

“At the end of the day, we are all fundamentally human,” Patrick said. “We all have the same basic drives, and those basic drives might underlie very complex behaviors and preferences.”

By Wendell Brock