Touching on technology


How does the device we use in consumption contexts shape our decisions and perceptions?

“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
Margaret Atwood

Online shopping is increasingly becoming a preferred method of shopping, with a recent survey indicating that consumers use it to make the majority of their purchases (on average 51% of their purchases in 2016 versus 48% in 2015 and 47% in 2014; Stevens, 2016). And while it might seem obvious that online and offline shopping can produce divergent consumption behaviors, it might be less obvious that the device consumers use can also shape product perceptions and preferences. But recent research conducted on the influence of touchscreens on consumer behavior has shown that this is indeed the case.

In an innovative paper, researchers Adam Brasel and James Gips (2014) found that interfaces with direct touch (i.e. a touchscreen), compared to indirect forms of interaction (laptop touchpad or mouse), can actually increase feelings of psychological ownership. As a result, participants in their studies attached more value to items they ‘touched’ (i.e. would charge a higher price were they to hypothetically sell it) than those they manipulated with a mouse cursor or touchpad. Moreover, the studies revealed another critical factor in this effect: the feelings of ownership generated by the touchscreen were more pronounced for products where touch is important, such as a sweater, than for purchases where touch is less important, such as a city trip. These findings suggest that for retailers selling products where touch is an essential attribute (such as the heft of a hammer or the texture of a pair of jeans), encouraging touchscreen use and interaction might be optimal strategies to drive consumer preferences.

Interestingly enough, the psychological effects of touchscreens do not appear to be limited to inedible items. Recently a team of researchers (Shen, Zhang, & Krishna, 2016) found that choosing food via touchscreen (versus using a mouse) can increase preferences for hedonic (i.e. indulgent and unhealthy) foods. In one such study, participants were significantly more likely to select cheesecake over a fruit salad when using a touchscreen interface. The authors argue that this effect arises from the congruence between the urge to reach out to the tempting food and the actions associated with the device (i.e. the touchscreen). Given the rising prevalence of touchscreen menus in restaurants and fast-food outlets, this phenomenon is of particular relevance.

Although studies that explore the effects of touchscreens are currently few and far between, those discussed in the paragraphs above challenge the notion that all online shopping is alike. Such studies suggest that retailers should take into account the specific medium through which their users interact with digital content, as carefully controlled laboratory studies indicate that the type of device can exert strong effects on psychological ownership, valuation, and product choice. Moreover, not all products yield the same effects: those that invite touch or are particularly tempting might be the most optimal for touchscreen interfaces. On a broader level, insights such as these reveal just how critical it is to monitor the influence of new technology on consumption behavior.


Brasel, S. A., & Gips, J. (2014). Tablets, touchscreens, and touchpads: how varying touch interfaces trigger psychological ownership and endowment. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 226–233.

Shen, H., Zhang, M., & Krishna, A. (2016). Computer Interfaces and the “Direct-Touch” Effect: Can iPads Increase the Choice of Hedonic Food? Journal of Marketing Research.

Stevens, L. (2016, June 8). Survey Shows Rapid Growth in Online Shopping. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from