JCR Research Curations are virtual collections of recently published JCR articles selected to highlight an important consumer research topic. Articles are curated by domain experts who identify links between JCR articles and assemble subject-related collections. The goal of these curated collections is to allow readers to explore a particular issue in depth and garner a deeper understanding of key consumer research topics. We hope the JCR community will find this new initiative useful. Please share it widely with your colleagues and students.
Consumer researchers have recognized for a long time that people consume in ways that are consistent with their sense of self (Levy 1959; Sirgy 1982). Important thought leaders in our field have described and documented that consumers use possessions and brands to create their self-identities and communicate these selves to others and to themselves (e.g., Belk 1988; Fournier 1998; McCracken 1989). Although early research tended to focus on broad conceptual issues surrounding consumers and their sense of self, recent research takes a more granular approach, breaking down the relationship between identity concerns and consumption to look at the effects of specific self-related goals and of different aspects of self-identity on consumer behavior. For example, why would someone drive his Prius to work but drive his BMW to a blind date? Impression management? Value expression? Need for affiliation?
The current collection of articles on self-identity and consumer behavior (appearing over the last two years) complements and adds to a growing body of work that has already appeared in JCR. Five of these six articles focus on specific relationships between self-identity-related goals and consumer behavior, exploring needs such as affiliation and distinctiveness, self-verification, and self-affirmation. The sixth paper explores the effect of identity activation on memory. The experiments in these articles fall into two paradigms. First, researchers threaten an aspect of self-identity to investigate how consumers engage in restorative behavior. In this paradigm, researchers may also allow consumers to bolster an aspect of self-identity to mitigate the need for self-repair. Second, researchers measure or manipulate (prime) a particular aspect of self-identity or a particular identity-related goal to examine the effect on subsequent consumer behavior. Taken altogether, the papers in this collection provide us with a more nuanced understanding of consumer behavior as it relates to self-identity. While this collection of recent articles moves us forward, the wide variety of self-identity goals and countless aspects of self-identity make this an extremely fruitful area for future research.
The first article, by White, Argo, and Sengupta, finds that consumers respond differently to self-threats depending on their self-construal. When independent selves are salient, a threat to the self activates the need to bolster self-worth through dissociation from identity-linked products, lowering preferences for such products. When interdependent selves are active, self-threat activates the need to belong, which manifests itself in an increased association with identity-linked products, enhancing product preferences. These findings persist across many different operationalizations of self-construal. Thus, how consumers restore their sense of self after a threat depends on which self-goal is activated, which in turn depends on the consumers’ self-construal.
Next, the article by Townsend and Sood explores how the choice of an aesthetically pleasing product can affirm a consumer’s threatened sense of self. Rather than identify a specific social identity, the researchers link aesthetics to personal values. The choice of a highly aesthetic product can boost one’s self-esteem by confirming one’s value for beauty. The researchers show that the choice of a highly aesthetic product meets consumers’ needs to self-affirm after a self-threat by replicating the positive effects of self-affirmation on a variety of downstream variables established in psychological research. For example, choosing a well-designed product increased openness to counterarguments and reduced commitment toward a failing course of action.
The third article, by Ward and Broniarczyk, also falls into the self-threat paradigm. Here, the threat arises from a naturally occurring consumer setting: gift giving. Identity-incongruent gifts to close friends threaten consumers’ sense of self, while incongruent gifts to distant friends do not. Close friends are incorporated into one’s sense of self, creating the self-threat from the purchase of incongruent gifts. In their studies, these researchers look at student affiliation and political identification as aspects of social identity. Self-verification goals are activated by the self-threat, strengthening affiliation with the threatened identity and increasing identity-consistent product choices as consumers restore (or verify) their self-identity.
The fourth article, by Chan, Berger, and Van Boven, examines how conflicting self-identity-related goals, affiliation needs, and uniqueness needs can be reconciled in a single product choice. Here the researchers measure and manipulate social group membership both as the relevant self-identity and need for uniqueness. They argue and find that consumers can meet both affiliation and distinctiveness needs by assimilating to in-groups on identity-signaling attributes, while differentiating themselves on the uniqueness attributes of the same product (and this effect is most pronounced for identity-signaling product categories). While the researchers are able to manipulate whether an attribute is perceived as identity signaling or uniqueness related, often the identity-signaling attribute is at the brand level (e.g., BMW), whereas the uniqueness attributes are more subordinate (e.g., blue instead of the more popular red).
The fifth article in the collection is by Kettle and Häubl. In line with the second self-identity research paradigm described above, these researchers identify a person’s signature as an effective self-identity prime. The social identity that is activated is based on situational cues afforded by the signing context. Once the identity is primed by the signature, consumers are motivated by congruence goals toward the activated identity. These goals affect shopping engagement, identification with in-groups versus out-groups, and corresponding choice.
The final article in the collection is a bit of a departure from the papers discussed thus far. Authors Mercurio and Forehand explore the role of self-identity activation on learning and memory rather than on goal activation and consumption behavior. The researchers find that how well information is learned and remembered follows an inverted-U function based on how closely related the information is to the active self-identity. Priming an aspect of self-identity (here, gender) at encoding and retrieval is most helpful for moderately related information, which benefits from rich self-content associations. Highly related information automatically primes the self, so nothing is gained from an external prime at encoding, while unrelated information does not build self-associations regardless of whether the aspect of self-identity is active or not.
Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September): 139-168.
Fournier, Susan (1998), “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research,” Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (March): 343-353.
Levy, Sidney J. (1959), “Symbols for Sale,” Harvard Business Review, 37 (July-August): 117-124.
McCracken, Grant (1989), “Who Is the Celebrity Endorser? Cultural Foundations of the Endorsement Process,” Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (December): 310-321.
Sirgy, Joseph M. (1982), “Self-Concept in Consumer Behavior: A Critical Review,” Journal of Consumer Research, 9 (December): 287-300.
The current research examines the conditions under which consumers demonstrate associative versus dissociative responses to identity-linked products as a consequence of a social identity threat. Across four studies, the authors test the notion that reactions to social identity threat may be moderated by self-construal by examining subcultural differences in ethnic background, priming self-construal, and investigating cross-national differences in cultural background. Those with more independent self-construals tend to avoid identity-linked products when that identity is threatened versus not threatened. Those with more interdependent self-construals, in contrast, demonstrate more positive preferences for identity-linked products when that aspect of social identity is threatened. These effects arise because, while independents are motivated to restore positive self-worth when a social identity is threatened, interdependents access a repertoire of social identities to fulfill belongingness needs when threatened.
Just as good looks bestow an unconscious “beauty premium” on people, high aesthetics bestows an unrecognized benefit on consumer goods. Specifically, choosing a product with good design affirms the consumer’s sense of self. Choice of a highly aesthetic product was compared with choice of products superior on other attributes including function, brand, and hedonics to show that only aesthetics influences a consumer’s personal values. In study 1 a prior self-affirming task leads to a decrease in choice share of a highly aesthetic option. Studies 2 and 3 mimic prior research on self-affirmation with, however, choice of a highly aesthetic product replacing a traditional self-affirmation manipulation. Choosing a product with good design resulted in increased openness to counter-attitudinal arguments and reduced propensity to escalate commitment toward a failing course of action. There are numerous implications of this form of self-affirmation, from public policy to retail therapy.
Prior research has established that consumers are motivated to purchase identity-consistent products. We extend consumer identity research into an important consumer context, gift giving, in which individuals may make product choices that run counter to their own identities in order to fulfill the desires of the intended recipient. We find that purchasing an identity-contrary gift for a close (vs. distant) friend who is an integral part of the self can itself cause an identity threat to the giver. Four experiments in a gift registry context show that after making an identity-contrary gift choice for a close (vs. distant) friend, givers subsequently engage in behaviors that reestablish their identity such as indicating greater identity affiliation with the threatened identity and greater likelihood to purchase identity-expressive products. This research highlights the opposing forces that product purchase may exert on consumer identity as both a potential threat and means of self-verification.
How do consumers reconcile conflicting motives for social group identification and individual uniqueness? Four studies demonstrate that consumers simultaneously pursue assimilation and differentiation goals on different dimensions of a single choice: they assimilate to their group on one dimension (by conforming on identity-signaling attributes such as brand) while differentiating on another dimension (distinguishing themselves on uniqueness attributes such as color). Desires to communicate social identity lead consumers to conform on choice dimensions that are strongly associated with their group, particularly in identity-relevant consumer categories such as clothing. Higher needs for uniqueness lead consumers to differentiate within groups by choosing less popular options among those that are associated with their group. By examining both between- and within-group levels of comparison and using multidimensional decisions, this research provides insight into how multiple identity motives jointly influence consumer choice.
Evidence from four studies shows that signing one’s name influences consumption-related behavior in a predictable manner. Signing acts as a general self-identity prime that facilitates the activation of the particular aspect of a consumer’s self-identity that is afforded by the situation, resulting in behavior congruent with that aspect. Our findings demonstrate that signing causes consumers to become more (less) engaged when shopping in a product domain they (do not) closely identify with (studies 1 and 2), to identify more (less) closely with in(out)-groups (study 3), and to conform more with (diverge more from) in(out)-groups when making consumption choices in preference domains that are relevant to signaling one’s identity (study 4). We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.
Although it is well known that advertising can momentarily activate specific consumer identities and thereby influence preference for identity-relevant products, the influence of such identity activation on consumer memory is undocumented. Identity activation encourages consumers to link advertising content to their identity during encoding, and these links facilitate subsequent recognition if the identity is again activated at retrieval. This identity-dependent processing produces different recognition outcomes for information that is strongly related, moderately related, and unrelated to the identity. Identity activation at both encoding and retrieval improved recognition of advertising content moderately related to the identity but had no effect on recognition of unrelated content. Identity activation at retrieval improved recognition of strongly related content, regardless of whether identity was primed externally at encoding. These results support an interpretative frame process at encoding and suggest that content-state association is a critical moderator of state-dependent learning.