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ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Take a look inside the average American household and you're likely to find high-tech electronic equipment, sports gear and kids' toys far too complicated for their owners' use.

Consumers often buy unsuitable products because they base purchase decisions on their perceived rather than actual abilities, says a University of Michigan professor.

"Consumers attempt to use self-assessments as a guide for what products to buy, but they have little idea of how their skills and abilities compare to those of other consumers," said Katherine Burson, assistant professor of marketing at Michigan's Ross School of Business. "That means when people choose products designed for particular skill levels, they often do not get what they intended to buy."

She says consumers too often assume that product manufacturers produce different levels of options?beginner, intermediate or advanced?for people of different skill levels.

"They mistakenly believe that all that's necessary is to determine their own skill level compared to others," Burson said. "Unfortunately, accurate self-assessment is actually quite difficult for most people."

In a recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Burson examines how manipulating the difficulty of a task given to a group of consumers leads to changes in their perceptions of their relative abilities and, consequently, in their choice of products.

In the first of two experiments, 55 participants were asked to putt golf balls on an indoor putting green. Half of the subjects putted a golf ball from 10 feet from the cup and the other half putted from three feet. Those who putted a shorter distance (easy task) not only were able to sink more balls but also thought they were better golfers in general than those putting a long distance (hard task)?despite the obvious ease or difficulty of the putts.

Furthermore, the participants used these biased self-assessments as a cue for product choice. The three-foot putters thought they should buy higher-end golf balls, compared with the 10-foot putters who selected lower-quality golf balls.

Burson explored this phenomenon further in a second experiment in which 46 participants were given an eight-item, multiple-choice quiz about photography. Half of them answered tricky questions while the others answered simple questions. The inability of the first group to answer many quiz questions led them to believe they were below-average photographers, and to prefer lower-tier digital cameras. The second group, which easily answered most of the quiz questions, inferred they were above-average photographers, and preferred more advanced cameras.

Burson's results are especially significant because consumers of all skill levels appear to be equally susceptible to this bias.

"As retailers race to improve the in-store experience for consumers by providing opportunities to try out products, they may unintentionally be misleading customers about their relative standings," she said. "For instance, in a sporting goods store, the climbing wall is certainly smaller and easier to scale than a real mountain, and the putting green is flatter and shorter than an actual golf course.

"My research suggests that if these trials are fairly easy, retailers may inadvertently encourage inflated perceptions of ability among their customers. The consequences of these misperceptions could range from frustration to actual physical injury."

Burson recommends that retailers take care to assess the true standing and the right products for their customers before ringing up sales.

More on Burson