Special Session Summary Motivational Influences of Social Context on Consumer Behavior

Stefano Puntoni, London Business School
Nader Tavassoli, London Business School
[ to cite ]:
Stefano Puntoni and Nader Tavassoli (2005) ,"Special Session Summary Motivational Influences of Social Context on Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 280-282.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005     Pages 280-282



Stefano Puntoni, London Business School

Nader Tavassoli, London Business School


There is a growing body of consumer research on the influence of social context. This includes research on embarrassment during purchase (Dahl, Manchanda, and Argo 2001), emotional contagion on product attitudes (Howard and Gengler 2001), the impact of public consumption on variety seeking (Ratner and Khan 2002), and sequential choice in group settings (Ariely and Levav 2000). However, much of consumer research still tends to focus exclusively on the individual, without consideration of the social surroundings. For example, advertising research has been accused of solely focusing on the "solitary subject" (Ritson and Elliott 1999). Similar claims have appeared in other areas of consumer research, such as adoption of innovations (Fisher and Price 1992).

Paradoxically, research in social psychology mirrors this under-investigation of the effect of social context. Eagly and Chaiken (1993) argue that "psychologists’ paradigm for studying attitudes have become decreasingly attentive to social context over the years This increasingly psychological focus is not unusual for social psychology" (p. 628). Social psychologists are used to think about social behavior in individual terms and they may therefore have troubles conceptualizing and measuring group phenomena (Levine and Moreland 1998, p. 418). As a result, "psychology ordinarily deals with individual processes and structures, without much systematic consideration of social context" (Eagly and Chaiken 193, p. 627).

The aim of this special session is to highlight the relevance of social context in a variety of consumption settings and to provide a forum for discussion with the goal of generating further interest in the area. The three papers outline a potential taxonomy of social context effects. Social situations can be categorized around three levels. The first category includes social settings in which the influence of social context is carried out via direct social interactions. The paper by Ferraro, Bettman and Chartrand shows how interaction with a confederate leads to mimicry of preferences. Moreover, they propose a framework to explain how social context can non-consciously shape brand associations.

The second category is that of "mere presence" effects and includes situations in which the influence of social context is exerted in the absence of direct interactions. For example, Levine, Resnick and Higgins (1993) point out that "even when their responses are neither observed nor cognitively represented and there is no opportunity for interaction, the fact that others are physically present can affect a person’s cognitive activity" (p. 588). The paper by Puntoni and Tavassoli shows how the simple presence of a confederate can affect cognitions and memory for lexical cues and ads.

The third category of effects represents circumstances in which the audience is not present but only imagined. Evidence supports the contention that priming a mental representation of others can affect cognition (e.g., Fitzsimons and Bargh 2003). The paper by Hamilton and Biehal shows how making people think about others can affect their self-view and how this effect of imagined social context on self-construal can have important effects on choice between financial products characterized by different levels of risk.

The thread linking the three papers is a common view on the motivational determinants of individual behavior. We believe that one of the most important drivers of people’s behavior can be found in humans’ inherently social nature. The three papers show how the effect of social context, conceptualized using the three categories mentioned above, has important motivational determinants.




Rosellina Ferraro, Duke University

James R. Bettman, Duke University

Tanya Chartrand, Duke University

Consumers acquire much of their knowledge about products, product users, and their own preferences from the world around them, especially the social context. In our research, we combine the important area of social influence with emerging research on nonconscious processing. Research on nonconscious processing and influence examines the activation of knowledge structures and their subsequent influence on attitudes and behavior, all without the individual being aware of or intending such influence. Examples of such research include nonconscious stereotype activation with subsequent behavior influenced to be in-line with the stereotype, and nonconscious goal pursuit, where once a goal is nonconsciously activated it will continue to completion without awareness. We explore the impact of nonconscious processing of social context information on subsequent consumer behavior by examining the effects of mimicry on preferences and of nonconsciously formed brand-user associations on choice and self-definition.

Brand and product choices act as a means of communicating information about ourselves to others. We may choose particular products and brands which others use to show similarity and liking for those others. The mimicry literature in social psychology has shown that individuals nonconsciously mimic facial expressions and behaviors such as foot-shaking and face-touching. This suggests that consumption choices that model others may be made without conscious awareness. We examine whether consumption behavior is mimicked and the subsequent implications for choice and preference. This work expands on prior findings by examining the impact of mimicking behavior on product preferences. In the study, we utilize a confederate who only eats one of two available snacks during a 15-20 minute interaction with a participant. We propose that the participant will, without awareness, mimic that behavior by predominately choosing the same snack option, and, in turn, rate the selected snack higher in terms of preference. Evidence indicates that this is the case for those individuals who are accurate in identifying the confederate’s snacking behavior. In the condition where the confederate ate only goldfish crackers, participants selected more goldfish crackers than animal crackers. Conversely, in the condition where the confederate ate only animal crackers, participants selected more animal crackers than goldfish crackers. The results indicate that relative preference for goldfish crackers is higher in the condition where the confederate ate only goldfish crackers than in the condition where the confederate ate only animal crackers. In support of our contention that this occurs without awareness, participants report in a funneled debriefing that the confederate’s behavior had no impact on their own behavior or preferences.

Consumers also may nonconsciously use information from their social environment to determine how popular products are as well as who the users of a product are. Although consumers may be consciously aware of marketing-activity related cues (e.g., attractive spokespersons), consumers are repeatedly exposed to information on products and brands that are not a result of marketing-activity related actions, and some of these exposures may be processed in a non-conscious fashion. For example, people one passes while walking through a mall may be wearing Nike sneakers or buying Juicy Fruit gum. Given the sheer amount of information that consumers are bombarded with, much of this information is likely to be processed without conscious awareness. Evidence suggests that people encode information about the frequency of occurrence of events and that this is done automatically (Hasher and Zacks 1984). We propose that each time a person is exposed to a product or brand, with or without awareness, s/he will register that information. This frequency information will subsequently influence preference. In addition to coding frequency information, we propose that consumers register information about the social context in which they encounter the brands. If a particular type of individual is repeatedly seen using a particular brand, a perceiver will make an implicit assessment about the typical user of that product. Consumers then utilize that social information nonconsciously to understand what products are appropriate for their own use. In a first study, participants viewed 20 photographs of college students engaged in various activities (e.g., eating, waiting for the bus), where 0, 4, or 12 of the photos contained a Dasani brand of bottled water placed inconspicuously next to the individual in the photo. As a "thank you" for their participation, participants were given a choice between four bottled waters. The results indicated that choice of Dasani increased with increased frequency of exposure to Dasani. Importantly, the results were driven by those participants who were not aware of having seen the Dasani brand in any of the photos. The follow up study investigates whether this effect is moderated by whether the individuals displayed in the photos with the Dasani are in-group or out-group members for the participant. It is expected that choice of the brand will increase with frequency of exposure when the users are members of an in-group and decrease with frequency of exposure when the users are members of an out-group.



Stefano Puntoni, London Business School

Nader Tavassoli, London Business School

We are often in presence of other people when we come into contact with advertising: when we are watching television at home or in a bar; surfing the web in an Internet cafe; noticing a poster while walking on a street; waiting inside a movie theater for the film to start; and so on.

Compared with the amount of research devoted to the effect of program context on advertising reception, social context has predominantly been ignored by advertising researchers (Ritson and Elliott 1999). As a result, research provides only a partial understanding of how advertising works. Our research is aimed at an experimental investigation of the effect of social context on advertising reception. Taking a social psychological perspective, we propose a framework for explaining how the presence of others might affect advertising reception.

In this article, we propose that one effect of social context on advertising reception is motivational in nature. Individuals are motivated to make a good impression on others (Goffman 1959) and we broadly define social desirability as a concern with the impression others are forming of us. A concern with social desirability has consequences for the way we attend at our social environment. For example, Leary and Kowalski (1990) claim that people scan the social environment for information concerning how others regard them most, if not all, of the time, even though often at a nonconscious level.

A primary theme in our research is that the presence of others primes the goal of social desirability. Accordingly, the presence of others leads to an internal readiness toward the goal of self-presentation. In this sense, we do not merely treat social desirability as a test-taking response bias, but as reflecting a more pervasive motivational determinant of individual behavior. In a series of three experiments we assessed the influence of social context on cognitive processes by asking participants to complete the study either alone or in presence of a confederate.

In two studies we used a lexical decision task in which female participants were asked to judge as quickly as possible whether a series of words were real of invented. To measure whether the presence of the male confederate primed a concern with social desirability we measured response latencies to words with either high or low applicability to this goal. These two studies provide support for the theoretical framework. Relative to words such as "shelf" that have low applicability to social desirability, words such as "beauty" that are instead related to social desirability were recognized faster in the presence of a confederate. These studies also show the consequences of mere social presence for memory. Relative to neutral words, participants tended to recall more words related to social desirability in the social condition. In study 1 the male confederate was presented as a research assistant who was trying to learn more about the experimental procedure. It could be argued that the cover story invested the confederate with a sense of authority, an important determinant of social influence (Milgram 1974). In study 2 we decided to replicate study 1 with a less intrusive manipulation of social context, one where the confederate was a fellow participant. In study 1 social context had an inhibitory effect on speed of response whereas in study 2 it had a facilitating effect. For both reaction times and free recall the interaction between social context and word type was not affected by this shift in the main effect of viewing context on reaction times.

In a third study we used ads as stimuli to assess whether the memory results obtained in study 1 and 2 could be replicated in an advertising setting. Using male participants and a female confederate, we found that, relative to ads unrelated to social desirability, ads related to social desirability (e.g., ad for a perfume) were remembered better in the presence of the confederate.



Rebecca W. Hamilton, University f Maryland

Gabriel J. Biehal, University of Maryland

We demonstrate that changes in consumers’ self-view influence their goals, information processing, and choices among alternatives. Our research builds on recent findings showing that different goals can be activated by inducing an independent or an interdependent self-view (Aaker and Lee 2001). Consumers whose independent self-view is salient view themselves as distinct from others, defined by unique characteristics (Fiske et al. 1998). They tend to be promotion oriented, focusing on gains rather than losses. In contrast, consumers whose interdependent self-view is salient see themselves as defined by and connected with others (Fiske et al. 1998). They tend to be prevention oriented, focusing on losses rather than gains.

In three studies, we show that consumers rate product benefits consistent with their self-view as more important, that product benefits consistent with the activated self-view are better recalled, and that choices differ systematically based on consumers’ self-view. We use two manipulations to influence consumers’ self-view. One is exposure to an advertising appeal that emphasizes either an independent or an interdependent self-view. The other is a situational prime where social context is primed by asking participants to imagine they are making choices for either themselves or both themselves and others. In all three studies, participants made hypothetical financial investment decisions.

The first study was designed to demonstrate that advertising appeals influence consumers’ self-view, their goals (expressed via the product benefits sought) and their choices. Consistent with our expectations, we found that participants expressed greater interest in promotion-oriented product benefits after seeing an advertisement that activated an independent self-view rather than an interdependent self-view. They also chose a higher proportion of high risk/high return mutual funds than participants whose interdependent self-view had been activated by the advertisement.

To further investigate the process by which choices are influenced by self-view, the second study examined encoding of product-relevant information. Participants read a scenario designed to manipulate self-view using an imagined social context, an investment club. Next, they saw a mutual fund "prospectus" that included a pretested set of promotion-oriented, prevention-oriented and neutral statements. When they subsequently performed an unexpected free recall task, those with an independent (interdependent) self-view were more likely to remember promotion-oriented (prevention-oriented) statements from the prospectus. Recall was significantly correlated with participants’ expressed interest in promotion-oriented (preventionBoriented) product benefits.

Our third study showed that the effect of the activated self-view on consumers’ choices is moderated by information about the status quo. Consumers often make a series of choices in the same domain, each of which can be viewed as continuing an existing pattern of choices (i.e., maintaining the status quo), or starting on a new course. The activated self-view is likely to influence such decisions, because prevention-oriented consumers tend to be more concerned with stability and security than promotion-oriented consumers (Liberman et al. 1999), showing a stronger preference for the status quo (Chernev 2004). Self-view was manipulated as in study 2. Status quo was manipulated using information about an existing portfolio that was either risky or conservative. As predicted, the status quo effect was stronger for interdependent than for independent self-view consumers. While independent self-view participants’ choices did not vary based on status quo information, interdependent self-view participants chose riskier funds when status quo was risky rather than conservative. As a result, the choices of interdependent participants were more consistent with existing portfolios than those of independent participants, but less consistent with their goals.

Taken together, these studies demonstrate the theoretical importance of situationally-activated goals at several stages in consumers’ choice processes. Our self-view manipulations affected participants’ encoding of product information, the importance weights assigned to product benefits, and consumers’ choices. From a managerial perspective, our results demonstrate the importanceBand the malleabilityBof consumers’ goals in financial decision making. While most previous research on financial choices conceptualizes risk preferences as a function of individual differences among consumers and their financial status, our studies demonstrate that the goals made salient prior to choice via a situational prime can influence consumers’ risk preferences and their subsequent financial decisions.


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