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September 2, 2011 5:00 PM

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The Uncanny Valley

How close is too close, but not close enough?...

How close is too close, but not close enough?

It's a question that's lingered since Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori introduced the concept of "The Uncanny Valley" in 1970 -- an idea that has relevance for fashion in these body-conscious times.

According to Mori's theory, machines become more familiar, more likable, as they start to appear more humanlike. But then they reach the uncanny valley. That's when the resemblance is so close that it starts to cause revulsion. As robots -- Mori uses the example of a prosthetic hand -- begin to look very similar to humans, they start to look like people who have something wrong with them. They look sick, not amazingly lifelike. Think about animated movies that go for realism over cuteness -- the effect is often not fun, but off putting.

The reverse seems to be happening in stores across the country. Attractive shoppers, and perhaps some sales staff, are stirring feelings of inadequacy in people with low body esteem. These shoppers are going into dressing rooms, but finding themselves in the uncanny valley.

A trio of academics sent women on a "mystery shopping experience" in which they were given a picture of a shirt and instructions to go to a particular store and ask a sales associate for help. The associate, "a trained confederate," would point out that another shopper, "a second confederate who was pretested as being more attractive than average," was also trying on that same shirt. The experiment was also run with the sales associate noting the other woman had just bought the same shirt, although she wasn't wearing it at the time.

The researchers found that shoppers with low body esteem gave the shirt a "significantly lower" evaluation when they saw the attractive shopper actually wearing the shirt; that shoppers focused on "parallel consumption behaviors."

The paper, "Social Information in the Retail Environment: The Importance of Consumption Alignment, Referent Identity, and Self-Esteem," was written by Darren Dahl, from the University of British Columbia; Jennifer J. Argo, at the University of Alberta, and Andrea Morales, from Arizona State University.

The implications of the research are worth highlighting.

"If a low body esteem consumer sees a dress on another attractive consumer in the store and is trying on the same dress herself, as she looks in the mirror she now thinks to herself, 'That dress is really cute and stylish on me, but compared to her, I look terrible!'" the researchers said, pointing out that dressing rooms that force customers into a common area with a large mirror might be a bad idea.

Although shoppers in the study didn't consider sales staff when they make such comparisons, the researchers said consumers might.

And the academics said advertising that features regular, albeit good-looking consumers in an effort to increase "personal relevance" might backfire.

"Our work suggests that by highlighting the similarity in identity between consumers and the people in the ads -- who are also 'real' consumers -- the advertisements also increase the likelihood that low body esteem consumers will generate negative social comparisons that result in lower product evaluations," the researchers said.

The exact business ramifications for retailers are unclear. How many consumers are there with low body esteem? Too many, for sure. But how many of them see other women trying on the same look and how many identify so closely with shoppers in ads?

The real question is: Why do these women (or men, although the study featured women) suddenly turn against a shirt and themselves when they see someone ostensibly more attractive wearing the same look?

Retailers are moneymaking machines, but they are oiled by psychology. Somewhere there's a merchant attuned to the lives of these women who can lead them out of the uncanny valley. That person will not just become a billionaire, but a hero.
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