Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The value of mistakes

John Pierre, a renowned pastry chef, is making a new batch of chocolate. Not paying attention, he leaves the chocolate in the oven for an extra five minutes by mistake, resulting in the chocolate having a different taste than he had intended. In light of this chef’s mistake, how interested are you in buying this chocolate?

Companies, in general, hesitate to release mistakes, much less advertise them to consumers as a unique product. John Pierre’s first instinct, in this case, may be to throw the chocolate away and whip up a new batch before customers come in for the day seeking his award-winning creations. But what if John Pierre viewed this mistake as a way to attract consumers? Would they, in fact, line up to purchase his “made by mistake” creation? Findings suggest the answer is yes.

Imagine, now, that a mistake did not result in a delicious new batch of chocolate, but a tainted product. Would consumers still prefer a product made by mistake even when the mistake made the product worse? In a recent study, consumers viewed a work of art that contained a mark that took away from its aesthetic quality. However, when the detracted artwork was framed as having been made by mistake (the artist accidentally marked the artwork by dropping his pen on it) versus intentionally (the artist decided to add the mark with his pen), consumers were more likely to purchase the artwork made by mistake—and were willing to pay more for it.

What explains the allure of products made by mistake? At the core of this preference is people’s tendency to assume that others do what they intend to do—a psychological phenomenon called the “intentionality bias.” In other words, people assume products are made intentionally, thus when products are made by mistake their creation seems more improbable and the products are subsequently perceived as more unique.

We value products made by mistake because they seem more unique, but does that higher desire to purchase translate across all product categories? Would learning that a heart monitor or household appliance was made by mistake increase its appeal? How does the product category impact the desire to own or use a “made by mistake” version of the product? Indeed consumers were found to prefer products made by mistake in product domains in which uniqueness is valued (i.e., hedonic products, like art, food, and music) but not in domains in which uniqueness is less central (i.e., utilitarian products, which are products purchased for their practical uses).

Mistakes are typically viewed negatively, however, learning that a product was “made by mistake” attracts consumers because it enhances perceptions of the product’s uniqueness. While companies might fear that advertising their mistakes could be costly, we suggest that it would be a mistake not to do so.

Featured image credit: gummibärchen fruit gums bear by Ronile. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. daphne

    Very interesting and valuable!

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