Business Psychology

Article No. 365
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Buy or Not to Buy

New research explores the influence of self-view on purchasing decisions.

How long does it take to make a purchasing decision . . . seconds? minutes? hours? Whatever the length, this period of pondering is probably the most studied mental event in all of psychology. Wouldn't you like to listen in . . . to crawl inside the minds of customers as they consider your product and listen to the reasoning they employ?

Retail business owners can't do this, but scientists have found ways to get close. The careful experiments they conduct and the procedures they follow can yield truly impressive insights. Jiewen Hong from Hong Kong University is the most recent researcher to tackle the challenge. Hong studied the effect of one's self view regarding others on purchasing decisions.

What is one's self view regarding one's place within the social environment? Of the many possible emphases, Hong chose two to study carefully. The first she named independent. This emphasis finds people thinking primarily of themselves as unique individuals as they make purchasing decisions. The second she named interdependent. This emphasis finds people thinking of themselves as part of a social context of close social relationships as they make purchasing decisions - ties to family and friends.

Each of these emphases can be fleeting, but they can also be enduring. A person who typically feels independent can be reminded of family and think of these social ties yet find his/her thoughts drifting back to independence within a few minutes. Conversely, an interdependent can be reminded of his/her independence and experience this feeling until thoughts drift back to ties with family and friends.

Social emphases can be easily prompted. Hong used pronouns like "me" and "I" to trigger feelings of independence. She used pronouns like "we" and "us" to trigger feelings of interdependence. Manipulating images or language in presenting products in displays can also prompt a particular social emphasis.

Hong conducted six experiments exploring the effect of this thinking on purchasing decisions. Here's what she learned.

When people experience independent thoughts as they make purchasing decisions, they rely more on feelings to help them decide. Their reasoning is affective: how will this purchase make me feel? When people experience interdependent thoughts as they make purchasing decisions, they rely upon logical, analytical thinking to help them decide. Their reasoning is cognitive: how will I justify this decision to others in my social environment?

Independents can make decisions very quickly. It doesn't take long to decide how one feels. Interdependents can take a long time to make decisions. There are many people to consider.

When Hong prompted people before a purchasing decision with a social emphasis that happened to match the emphasis they typically experienced, it dramatically affected their willingness to pay. It increased 53%.

Marketing/Sales messages are most effective when they target people correctly and present consistent messages. For example, a middle aged male, by himself, examining a convertible in an auto showroom would be most responsive to a visual image of him driving the car by himself in some exotic location. You would assume his thinking is independent and his decision process will rely upon feelings. You can expect little price resistance, and you can expect a quick decision. But if you offer him a visual image of his wife next to him and his kids in the backseat, you've prompted an entirely different purchasing decision strategy, an interdependent strategy. He'll be thinking about justifying this purchase to his family, and most likely, he'll walk away from the car and not look back.

Getting everything right is a challenge, and you'll occasionally miss, but now, thanks to Ms. Hong, you'll also occasionally be getting it right. Remember, an independent emphasis - appeal to emotions. An interdependent emphasis - appeal to reason.

Reference: Hong, Jiewen, and Hannah H. Chang (2015) "I" Follow My Heart and "We" Rely on Reasons: The Impact of Self-Construal on Reliance on Feelings versus Reasons in Decision Making. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(6), 1392-1411.

© Management Resources

Keywords: Purchasing decisions, self-view, decision making, sales
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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