Editor’s note: Today we continue our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.
Somewhat related to the preceding issue, a strongly limiting aspect of our theorizing is our almost exclusive emphasis on uncovering psychological processes, as opposed to understanding the mental contents on which these processes operate. For example, we know that consumers are more likely to learn empirical correlations among product attributes if the data are consistent with the consumers’ prior beliefs (e.g., price and quality are positively correlated) than if the data are inconsistent with their prior beliefs (e.g., price and quality are negatively correlated) (Broniarczyk & Alba, 1994). However, we do not typically ask ourselves what are consumers’ prior beliefs about correlations among product attributes. Similarly, research on affect generally tells us about when and how affective feelings are likely to be used in judgments and decisions (Pham, 2004). However, this research is largely silent about the actual content of consumers’ feelings. Likewise, recent research on consumer motivation focuses primarily on the mechanics of how consumers pursue their goals, as opposed to the content of the goals that consumers are pursuing.
In other words, in our conceptualization of consumer behavior—whether it is information processing, judgment and decision making, affect, or motivation—what seems to matter mostly to us is the process. This is why we typically use the phrase “explanation” and “process explanation” interchangeably. The actual content of consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and motives doesn’t really seem to matter.
For our field to grow in terms of relevance, it is important that we pay much more attention to issues of content. Consumer behavior is a substantive field. Attempting to explain consumption behavior without reference to the content of consumers’ motives, feelings, actions, and thoughts is extremely impoverishing. When companies or policy makers want to understand consumers, they really want to know what consumers do, what consumer think, what they want, and what they feel—that is, content. They don’t really want to know how each of these things happen, which is what we mostly focus on as a field.
While many branches of psychology also have a process orientation (e.g., cognitive psychology, social psychology, experimental psychology), we should not forget that some of the most influential theories and contributions in psychology were largely about content rather than process per se. Think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, Rokeach’s typology of values, Milgram’s work on obedience, Fiske and Norman’s and “Big Five” dimensions of personality, and Hofstede’s dimensions of cultural difference.
My most cited paper is a paper with Raj Raghunathan on the motivational effects of anxiety versus sadness on decision making (Raghunathan & Pham, 1999). I didn’t realize it back then, but in retrospect, the reason why this paper has some impact is because it made salient the differences between anxiety and sadness in terms of motivational content. It was Raj’s idea, not mine, to position the paper that way. Had Raj listened to my original idea, which was to position the paper as an affect-as-information paper, a more process-oriented positioning, the paper would not have had the impact that it had.
Raj also showed good taste for important content issues in his work with Rebecca Naylor and Wayne Hoyer on the “unhealthy equal tasty” intuition (Raghunathan, Naylor, and Hoyer, 2006). This paper is one of the most cited papers in JM that year. What is driving the influence of this paper is not something special about the way this particular intuition operates, it is the fact that this intuition exists in the marketplace and shapes consumption behavior substantially.
Similarly, Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008) recently conducted some field experiments to test how different forms of requests place on bathroom signs affected the likelihood that hotel guests would reuse their towels. They found that requests using social norms, such as “The majority of guests reuse their towels,” were substantially more effective than the requests frequently used by hotels. Conceptually, this paper was very simple: it was about finding out which content in terms of appeal worked better in the marketplace. Yet, the paper went on to receive JCR’s best article of award and is by far the most cited article in that journal that year.
One of the most fascinating readings about consumer psychology is an old book by Ernest Dichter (1964) called the Handbook of Consumer Motivations. Dichter, as you may know, is considered the “father of motivation research.” Yet Dichter’s approach to consumer motivation was totally different from how we study motivation today: it was all about content. Dichter was a Freudian. He believed that behind every consumption object, whether asparagus, wooden floors, perfume, or toothpaste, lies a symbolic meaning that is deeply rooted in our unconscious motives. For example, he suggested that large kitchen appliances, such as the fridge and the stove, are really surrogates for men to express their deeply rooted desire to be seen as providers for their family. This could explain why there is a strong preference for fridges and stoves that are masculine-looking (large, square-shouldered, and stainless steel). In his book, Dichter offered similar analyses for hundreds of product categories. Although one may quarrel with some of his analyses, I personally found many of them insightful and rather convincing, even though they were written some 50 years ago. My major takeaway from Dichter’s work is that if you really want generate useful insights about consumer behavior, you really need to pay more attention to matters of content.
Therefore, I would urge us to pay more attention to the content of consumers’ thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions. This is what our external constituents really need, and this is something that is likely to enhance our collective scholarly impact. Doing so requires that we suspend our search of psychological universals, and be more willing to ground our theorizing into certain consumption contexts. This is essentially what Raghunathan, Naylor, and Hoyer (2006) did in the food domain, and what Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008) did in the environment-conservation-in-hotels domain. We may not necessarily want to be as granular and specific as Dichter was, but we cannot afford to be as generic as we have been. Another example is in cross-cultural consumer research, if we really want to say something meaningful about Asian or Middle-eastern consumers, we need to go beyond our broad distinction such as individualism/collectivism and capture some of the rich market and cultural content differences between say Korean consumers and Indonesian consumers or Dubai vs. Saudi Arabia.