This paper focuses on an underexplored aesthetic cue that has been gaining substantial popularity over the recent years in advertising and marketing: a blurry background. In particular, this essay takes on the question of how the use of a blurry background, relative to a sharp background, of a company’s commercial webpage may nudge consumers to make risky decisions/choices. Toward this end, I first draw on various streams of evidence that suggest a causal relationship between blurriness and spatial distance, and I connect this literature with the key premise of construal level theory that perception of spatial distance elicits a high-level construal, which has been shown to augment risk-taking propensity by increasing focus on payoff (vs. probability). Taken together, I hypothesize that exposure to a blurry background would result in a high-level construal via perception of distance, which in turn is likely to increase risk-taking behavior via heightened payoff focus (i.e., blurrinessàdistanceà high-level construalàpayoff focusàrisky decision).
Across a series of 5 studies, I find empirical evidence for this theoretical proposition. Using diverse risky consumption contexts such as financial retirement investment, MBA application, and real lottery choice, all of which contain both payoff (e.g., expected returns, rosy starting salary, and bonus on top of participation fees) and risk (e.g., probability of losing, risk of not getting a job after graduation, and risk of losing basic participation fees), I find that consumers exposed to blurry backgrounds, relative to sharp backgrounds, report higher investment intention, higher application intention, and a higher likelihood of participating in a consequential lottery task. I also discover that this main effect disappears when the consumption context is not risky, that the effect is attenuated when riskiness/probability of the option is emphasized, and that this effect may be prevented by giving consumers an appropriate warning message, prior to dealing with the risk-taking task. I also obtain support for the five-stage causal link ‘blurrinessàdistanceàhigh-level construalàpayoff focusàrisky decision’, given that the serial mediation analysis validates this pathway.
This research makes important theoretical contributions to construal level theory, perceptual psychology, aesthetics, and research on risky decisions. My work also has implications for practitioners dealing with the design of their company’s webpage and provides food for thought (and one possible way of controlling the effect) for regulators who wish to prevent overly risky consumption decisions.