You Are What You Buy

Wharton’s Lisa Bolton investigates the connections between identity, judgment, and consumer behavior.

By Nancy Moffitt

It was around the time of the Florida election recounts that Lisa Bolton noticed that no one seemed to be listening. She saw the emotional debate, Democrats and Republicans exercised and red-faced, no one budging an inch. It was more of the same when the new administration announced plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a short time later – environmentalists in one camp, Republicans in another. “I was watching it all and thinking, ‘No one is changing their mind in all of this. There’s no meeting in the middle.’”

Her Wharton marketing colleague Americus Reed, meanwhile, would often drift into her office, waxing philosophic about the power of identity – that decisions, consumer and otherwise, are really all about a person’s identity.

Bolton, an assistant professor of marketing, began thinking about Reed’s words, the national political debate, and a host of other contexts came to mind: Why do so many smokers keep smoking, despite decades of health warnings? Why do Harley Davidson motorcycles and Ralph Lauren clothing engender such loyalty among very specific types of people? Why is it teens and parents always seem to fight, and never seem to hear what the other is saying?

Four experiments later, Bolton and Reed found some answers demonstrating that, indeed, judgments that are linked to a person’s identity – from teenager to Republican, environmentalist or businessman – are virtually immovable, or “sticky.” This stickiness – the tendency for judgments to persevere – is a thread throughout Bolton’s growing body of research, work that is breaking new ground in both consumer and managerial contexts.

In her most recent research article, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, Bolton addressed social identity on a very broad level, going beyond new product attitudes to investigate social and political judgments in a varied population of participants.

Titled “Sticky Priors: The Perseverance of Identity Effects on Judgment,” the paper included four studies that examined the effects of identity on judgment. The studies looked at judgments of a variety of issues and products, such as pollution, legalizing marijuana, and electronic books, that were linked to different identities held by participants, such as environmentalist, businessperson, or parent. Bolton and Reed then tried to influence participants’ judgments using techniques that varied from evenhanded reasoning (listing pros and cons) to adopting the perspective of another identity (say, parent vs. teenager), with little success. Social influence – good old peer pressure – was somewhat effective in countering identity based judgment, “But not entirely,” Bolton says. “Throughout, we really find that identity is really powerful in its effects on judgment.”

“It really doesn’t help to go to the person and say to them, ‘Hey come on, look at the evidence.’ If being a smoker is part of your identity, you can present all the analytic evidence in the world about cancer and heart disease, and it’s going to be very difficult to sway your attitude toward smoking because it’s so much a part of how you define yourself. Your identity serves as a filter of sorts, and you discount information or social influence that’s inconsistent with that identity,” she says. “It’s hard to walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes.”

Smart marketers have relied on identity messages for years, luring consumers with products and brands that symbolize their own personality traits – or traits they aspire to. Ralph Lauren, for instance, has built an empire peddling everything from paint to perfume to the well-heeled set. Previous research has similarly demonstrated that consumers are often attracted to products and brands that are linked to their identity. But Bolton and Reed’s work is the first to show how powerful identity is. “We believe we are the first to take an identity based judgment, subject it to attack with a variety of techniques, and demonstrate what a force it is,” Bolton says.

The message for marketers, Bolton says, is that identity is a powerful way to build brand loyalty. “It resists counter attack from competitors. Arguments that say ‘My brand is better because of these attributes’ are probably not enough to overcome a strong identity based attitude for a competitor. It’s a good basis for brand loyalty that resists change.”

For social marketers focused on bettering consumer welfare, the studies provide evidence that finger wagging messages, such as anti-smoking advertising that barrages consumers with warnings about health risks, can be wholly ineffective. “Young people, teenagers, are just not going to respond to those kinds of messages,” Bolton says. “They don’t think they are at risk, but it’s also not tying into why they smoke to begin with.” A better approach, Bolton suggests, would focus on offering an attractive counter identity, such as encouraging healthy habits by linking them to athleticism.

What does the study offer managers? “Your identity can really effect how you face problems as a manager,” Bolton says. “If you’re a marketer, you think you need more advertising. If you’re a finance person, you think you need more investment. It got me to thinking about the challenge of reconciling those different points of view within the firm. It also made me think that just being a businessperson is actually a really strong identity for a lot of people. It’s hard for them, say, to understand why the environmentalists or certain customer segments are so upset with them. A strong identity makes it harder to consider alternative points of view, which is really what you need to do as a manager – otherwise you’re just going to bring your own biases into your perceptions of your customers and the marketplace.”

Bolton’s study of identity based judgment builds on earlier work that investigates “stickiness” in judgment, i.e., the tendency for judgments to persevere. Her dissertation, for instance, looked at what happens when managers launching new products base forecasts on past experience rather than analytic predictions. “Forecasts were stickier when based on analogies or scenarios rather than analytic thinking,” Bolton says. “This suggests that managers may be overconfident about a product’s success, continuing to invest in it or in a project when evidence suggests otherwise.”

Another study, titled “Consumer Perceptions of Price (Un)Fairness,” found that price perceptions are sticky: consumers tend to believe that prices are unfair, and reminding them of inflation and other costs does little to improve their fairness perceptions. The research, Bolton says, points to a gap between how consumers and managers think – a gap managers should acknowledge if they want to change customer attitudes.

Other work has a definite social welfare bent, such as research that investigated how the marketing of “remedy” products such as nicotine replacement patches, the now-ubiquitous debt consolidation loan, and identity theft insurance and software ultimately affect consumer behavior. The good news, the studies found, was that for consumers “outside of the problem domain,” i.e., non-smokers or those with little personal debt, “remedy messages” reinforced perceptions that the behavior is risky and should be avoided. The bad news? Smokers and over spenders tended to perceive remedy products as ‘get out of jail free cards,’ ultimately increasing their problem behavior. And when it came to identity theft, consumers were more inclined to take risks, such as sharing personal information when shopping on websites, if they had purchased identity theft insurance or software.

“The companies are really careful about how they position their messages,” Bolton says. “But somehow you always get the feeling in the end that the consumer is walking away thinking ‘Gee, this isn’t so risky after all, because of the remedy.’ The remedy marketers’ messages undermine the risk-avoidance messages of just-say-no campaigns, for example. We’d all be better off if we didn’t smoke and get into too much debt, but the remedies suggest to consumers that maybe we can get away with it. Put this way, it seems that risky behavior is sticky and hard to change too.”

Born and raised in the countryside near Toronto, Bolton was an officer in the Canadian forces, then worked for five years as a medical engineer at several Canadian teaching hospitals. She took a year off and traveled the world before deciding to earn her PhD at the University of Florida, a school known for its strong marketing program, where she met Professor Reed and the two first began discussing issues of identity and judgment.

Her work is all about stickiness, but didn’t start out that way. “I was initially very interested in how judgments are formed and how they change, and I studied this in contexts where judgment is very important, like new product forecasting and consumer price perceptions. Along the way, I discovered that some kinds of judgments seem to be more difficult to change, and I decided to explore this more.”

“Stickiness isn’t always a bad thing,” Bolton continues. “Sometimes, it’s good to stick to your guns or persevere with an initial judgment – if it’s correct. But stickiness can be bad if it leads us astray and prevents us from adapting to new information in our environment. On the flip side of the stickiness coin, my research also explores ways to change or take the bias out of judgment – for example, by prompting people to engage in more analytic pro-and-con reasoning, to generate alternative scenarios and analogies, to adopt counter-identities. I hope that some of these tools may prove useful in overcoming the stickiness of an initial judgment and ultimately help managers and consumers make better decisions.”

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