Many products, such as golf clubs or cameras, are designed for consumers of a certain skill level. However, deciding what product would be most appropriate is often based on skewed self-assessment, leading to a purchase of equipment that may be too advanced or too basic. A revealing new study from the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research shows how these choices may be affected by marketing strategies and provides insight into how consumers can better select the right products for their particular skill level.

Perceptions of skill are frequently inaccurate because people base assessments of their own ability on how hard the task feels – rather than more objective criteria like what percentage of the population is able to perform the same task, explains Katherine A. Burson (University of Michigan).

"This research not only documents skill-matching, but also shows that it is the estimate of comparative skill rather than actual, absolute skill that drives choice," Burson writes. "Because matching is tested in domains where consumers’ skill levels can be objectively measured, these studies are able to show that the strategy can lead to unintended purchase choices by consumers as a result of inaccurate assessments of their own ability compared to others."

For example, Burson had participants putt golf balls on an indoor putting green. Half of the participants putted from a distance of ten feet and the other half from a distance of three feet. They were then asked to choose among golf balls marketed to different skill levels and priced accordingly.

Those who had tried to putt the ball three feet sank more putts and perceived themselves as better overall golfers than those who had attempted the ten-foot putt, Burson explains. Consequently, those who had putted on the shorter green also thought they should buy higher-end equipment than those who had putted from a longer distance.

"What does this mean for us" We need to be careful about the inferences that we draw from experiences like putting on the small indoor green at the local proshop. Just because we get eagles here doesn’t mean it is time to buy those Callaway clubs," Burson concludes.

Katherine A. Burson. "Consumer-Product Skill Matching: The Effects of Difficulty on Relative Self-Assessment and Choice," Journal of Consumer Research: June 2007.