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How Psychological Traits Drive Buying Decisions

In last week’s blog post, I argued that personality traits can be conceived of as “chronic motivations”, and that such a conceptualization shows how they can be used to uncover the true motivations behind consumer behavior. This week I’m going to expand upon this theme by arguing that there are, at least, two general pathways for such motivations to be realized, and make some suggestions on how to tell the two apart.

There are two pathways I can conceive of through which a trait may lead to different kinds of consumer behavior: an intrinsic pathway focused only on fulfilling a personal goal, and an extrinsic pathway focused on signaling to others.

A motivation may lead someone to do something simply because they want to, without any regard to what other people know about what they have done-- this is an intrinsic pathway. In contrast, if someone is motivated to do something so that other people know about it, if they do something to create a signal for others, then this is extrinsic motivation.

This may seem a bit abstract, so I’m going to walk through the difference between these two pathways using a simple example with a straightforward trait, eco-consciousness. If someone is highly eco-conscious, they are motivated to behave in eco-friendly ways across many situations. However, this does not specify whether they do so for themselves (intrinsic motivation), for others (extrinsic motivation), or most likely, some combination of the two pathways which are not mutually exclusive. Behaviors resulting from an intrinsic pathway would include things like putting on a sweater in one’s own house rather than turning up the heat, driving a regular car that has been converted to biodiesel but in an unnoticeable way, or anonymously giving to an eco-friendly charity. Behaviors resulting from an extrinsic pathway might include things like driving a Prius (with its characteristically identifiable body shape), visibly wearing hemp, publicly giving to an eco-friendly charity, etc. In the first set of examples, there is no audience, so the motivation must be intrinsic; whereas, the last three examples include public display elements, so it is harder to tell whether they result from an intrinsic pathway (in which case these elements would be irrelevant to the individual) or an extrinsic one (in which case these public display elements are critical in eliciting the behavior).

It can be hard to separate the two pathways out: Did that guy just recycle only because he knew I was watching him, or was my presence irrelevant since he always recycles? Clearly these two pathways are not discrete, but blend into each other. He may generally recycle, but would go to slightly greater trouble to do so when there is an audience; indeed, such audience effects are well known throughout research literatures from across the social sciences. However, this distinction can be critical. It is widely believed that creating a unique and easily identifiable body that could only be bought as a hybrid (emphasizing the extrinsic pathway) was critical to the success of the Prius. Combining other kinds of information can shed some light on which pathway a motivation is expressed through, so all is not lost. For example, an eco-consciousness measure could be combined with a public-consciousness measure to see whether people need to be high on both to buy a Prius.

A more subtle way to tell the two pathways apart was suggested to me by one of our advisors, Geoffrey Miller. I asked him how one might tell the pathways apart and he suggested that one could assess other psychological characteristics known to be associated with the signaling goal of the extrinsic pathway. He noted that decisions and behaviors that are produced through the extrinsic pathway should “be more heavily mediated and moderated by traits and states that predict signaling effort, such as measures of mating effort, sociosexuality, narcissism, or just being young, male, single, etc.” (personal communication, September 19, 2012). Thus, assessing things known to correlate with signaling (e.g., sociosexuality), and checking for interactions with primary motivations (e.g., eco-consciousness) can help shed light on how a motivation manifests as behavior.


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Posted by Kyle Thomas on Mar 19, 2013

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