Helson Adaptation-Level Theory

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Albert Einstein may be famous for his theories on relativity, but if you own a business, the work of Harry Helson may be much more relevant. Back in 1947, Helson proposed that the way people respond to new stimuli is directly related to similar previous experiences — that is, our reactions are relative. He coined this as "adaptation-level theory", but it's also often called AL theory for short.

Helson Adaptation-Level Theory in Practice

If you ever watch a baseball player warming up on deck, you may see him slide a doughnut-shaped weight onto the bat. After several swings, he will remove the weight before taking his position on home plate. This is a perfect example of AL theory at work, sometimes referred to as the Gestalt theory of adaptation.

The weighted bat feels heavier at first, but after several swings, it begins to feel "normal" because the batter has adapted himself to the extra weight by swinging it harder. When he removes the doughnut, the bat now suddenly feels much lighter. So, when he swings at his new "normal" rate, he swings at a higher velocity and hits the ball farther.

AL theory works with any type of stimuli. If you're in a library and someone speaks above a whisper, it may seem like shouting. If you live in Boston and visit Miami in the winter, you may be quite comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts even if the locals are all wearing slacks and sweaters.

Adaptation-Level Theory Psychology in Marketing

Business owners and marketers need to understand how the principles behind AL theory can affect their sales efforts. It can affect everything from pricing and packaging to where items are placed on a retail shelf. If items are placed on the shelf between eye level and waist level, you may notice that people associate this as an effortless buying decision. If shoppers need to bend down or go on their tip-toes to get an item, it requires only a little physical effort, but psychologically, it becomes a reason to hesitate before making the buying decision.

Even small things can have a big impact on a buyer's decision making. If you are buying a life insurance policy, for example, the sales rep may hand you an expensive-looking pen that is heavier than average. While a cheap ballpoint pen would normally do the job just as well, the heavier pen feels more significant in the hand and consequently makes the event of buying that policy appear to be as significant as signing a peace treaty or a presidential order.

Adaptation and the Case of the Shrinking Candy Bars

As the cost of producing food continues to become more expensive, food manufacturers have been placed in a double bind. If they raise prices, they will lose customers. Likewise, if they replace ingredients with cheaper alternatives, they will also lose customers. For many companies, the solution has been to reduce the amount of food but keep the packaging the same size. This is sometimes referred to as "shrinkflation".

Consumers see the same-size package for the same price and seldom hesitate to pick up the item. Even if they see that the stated weight or volume of the package's contents has been reduced, they're still more likely to purchase the item than if the packaging had been reduced accordingly. Consumers may complain that there is more air in the package than there used to be, but sales don't see any dramatic declines.