It was James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns that turned me on to how quirks in our language can predict future behavior. So, I was pleased when I came across a paper that looks at how dispreferred markers affect how people feel about a brand.

If you have no idea what a dispreferred marker is, don’t worry; I had no idea either. A dispreferred marker is a phrase people use just before they deliver a negative comment; for example:

"I liked it but..."

"I dont mean to be mean..."

These markers don’t change the truth of a statement but act as an “emotive signal, acknowledging the potential for social awkwardness, or disagreement in the conversation.” The interesting thing about the research paper is that it goes beyond seeing dispreferred markers as a social signal, but instead as something that can affect subsequent behavior.

The researchers ran a sequence of experiments, the most interesting being the fifth and final experiment, which investigated how dispreferred markers alter people’s view of the brand and how much they say they would pay for a watch.

In this experiment, participants were split into two groups. One group saw an advert for an Oniss watch and a single customer review with a dispreferred marker, while the other group saw the same advert without the marker.

Review stimulus used in orginal experiment

The researchers found that the group who saw the advert with the dispreferred marker would pay more for the watch than those who didn’t see the marker.

The study does a great job of demonstrating how reviews can affect the perception and stated value of a watch, but as someone who’s interested in marketing, I’d love to see if the same effect occurs when dispreferred markers are used in advertising copy or across categories. When and where does the dispreferred marker effect occur? Maybe a little experiment is in order!