The Evolving Self in Consumer Behavior: Exploring Possible Selves

Amy J. Morgan, Memphis State University
ABSTRACT - This paper proposes the incorporation of an explicitly future-oriented dimension into the study of the self-concept in consumer behavior. The first sections of the paper briefly discuss the progress of self-concept studies in the consumer literature, as well as the limitations of this earlier work. Next, some of the more recent perspectives on the self which have emerged in the field will be explored. Finally, the possible self concept will be introduced through discussion of its theoretical foundation, definition and functions, specific propositions and testing issues and implications for the study of consumer behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Amy J. Morgan (1993) ,"The Evolving Self in Consumer Behavior: Exploring Possible Selves", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 429-432.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 429-432


Amy J. Morgan, Memphis State University


This paper proposes the incorporation of an explicitly future-oriented dimension into the study of the self-concept in consumer behavior. The first sections of the paper briefly discuss the progress of self-concept studies in the consumer literature, as well as the limitations of this earlier work. Next, some of the more recent perspectives on the self which have emerged in the field will be explored. Finally, the possible self concept will be introduced through discussion of its theoretical foundation, definition and functions, specific propositions and testing issues and implications for the study of consumer behavior.


The self-concept has been of interest to consumer behavior researchers for a period of nearly forty years. Drawing on earlier works proposing a symbolic importance of products (e.g., Goffman 1951, Hall and Trager 1953), Levy (1959) argued that consumer behavior may be less influenced by a product's functional properties than by the images perceived to be associated with the product and, most significantly, by the interaction of this product image with the consumers' self-image. This assertion by Levy is credited as being the first influence to "...sensitize consumer behavior researchers to the potential influence of consumers' self- concept on consumption behavior" (Sirgy 1982a, p. 289).

In the decades following its introduction to the study of consumer behavior, the self-concept has been addressed from a diverse variety of perspectives, some psychologically-oriented and others drawing from the field of sociology. Consistent with the discipline's shift toward a broadened perspective of the consumer, has been a change in direction aimed at examining the relationship between the ways in which consumers view themselves and the consumption activities undertaken. Treatment of the self-concept has moved toward a more holistic interpretation of the construct than may be found in earlier research endeavors.

The purpose of this paper is to further the broadening perspective on the self-concept in consumer behavior by proposing an additional dimension, in the form of possible selves. This dimension, grounded in self-schema theory, represents an all-encompassing perspective on the self-concept, recognizing that the individual's working self-concept spans past, present and future (Markus and Nurius 1986). Incorporation of this future-oriented dimension would well serve efforts to arrive at a holistic definition of the self-concept, through the recognition that each person's view of self is not solely informed by an image of the present self, but rather an image influenced by that individual's recollections of the past and visions of the future as well.

The contribution of possible selves to the study of consumer behavior may best be viewed in the context of the progress of self-concept studies found in the extant literature. The first sections of this paper trace the evolution of self-concept research as it has been incorporated at various stages of the discipline's growth. Initially, the early self-concept literature will be briefly addressed, followed by a discussion of limitations identified in this body of research. Next, more recent paradigmatic perspectives, including Belk's (1988) extended self, will be explored. Finally, the theoretical foundations and definition of the possible self will be elaborated, as will specific propositions and empirical considerations and the benefits which may be gained from incorporating this perspective into the study of consumer behavior.


Early Treatments of the Self-Concept

On the basis of Levy's (1959) work discussed above and Rogers' (1951) theory of individual self-enhancement, Grubb and Grathwohl (1967) developed the first formal model of the self-concept in consumer behavior, depicting a reciprocal relationship between product image and consumers' self-image. Several empirical studies subsequently appeared exploring the nature of this relationship. An excellent discussion of the first twenty-five years of self-concept study in consumer behavior is provided in M.J. Sirgy's (1982a) critical analysis.

Sirgy's (1982a) review classifies early consumer self-concept studies on the basis of five emergent research themes. Additionally, the studies are grouped according to the definition of the construct being investigated. Three broad definitional categories may be observed as encompassing a majority of the studies: [1] one-dimensional definitions (e.g., Birdwell 1968, Green et al 1969, Grubb and Hupp 1968, Allison et al 1980); [2] two-dimensional definitions (e.g., Delozier and Tillman 1972, Dolich 1969, Landon 1971); and [3] multi-dimensional definitions (e.g., Munson and Spivey 1980, Sirgy 1980). Beyond these categories, however, any clear consensus of definition is lacking. Within each of these categories, an overwhelming array of terms may be found (e.g., actual self, real self, now self, ideal self, desired self, looking glass self, social self, ideal social self, expressive self, product expressive self, etc.), many of them apparently addressing the same construct under a different name. Clearly, a serious limitation of this early research is the lack of a clearly articulated or commonly accepted definition of the self-concept construct. As noted by Sirgy (1982a) "...ambiguity and confusion on the precise conceptualization of self-concept in the consumer behavior literature" (p. 288) seriously detracts from the potential usefulness of this body of research.

Two early research treatments of the self-concept are notably unique in their divergence from the more traditional treatment of self-concept as an innately static entity. These works by Schenk and Holman (1980) and Burnkrant and Page (1982) acknowledge the self-concept as a dynamic entity, changing as a result of different situational influences. While these studies did not entirely avoid the ambiguity of definition in other self- concept literature, they are to be commended for introducing new direction to the study of self in consumer behavior with the recognition of the impact of situational factors.

Another limitation of this early consumer self-concept literature is the lack of development of a theoretical base on which research could be continued. The majority of studies in the area focused on repeated empirical testing of largely atheoretical models and constructs. While many of the studies reported significant findings, a different treatment by another researcher was often able to negate the significance of previous conclusions.

Noting the dearth of theoretical grounding and lack of consensus emerging from the body of self-concept literature, Bettman et al (1978) observed that the study of self-concept in consumer behavior had reached the decline stage of its life cycle. Few examples of the early research treatments may be found in the literature following Sirgy's (1982a) review. Rather, recent works have focused on "self" in a more implicit and less managerially- oriented way. New research focuses on exploring the meaning of consumption activities and the relationship between this meaning and the consumers' self-concept.


The shift in approach to studies of consumers' self-concept closely paralleled the discipline's growing acceptance of an alternative view to the information-processing paradigm. Belk (1987) described this change in direction as a move away from the consumer-as-computer model to a recognition of the consumer as human being. Consistent with this shift in paradigmatic perspective, the study of consumers' self moved away from seeking to describe, explain, and predict buyer behavior based on congruence between self-image and product-image, toward a more encompassing view of self as a dynamic construct impacting on all manner of consumption activities.

The Extended Self

Emerging from the body of work recognizing the reciprocal relationship between possessions and the consumers' view of self, Belk's (1988) advancement of the extended self, offered a new perspective on the study of self in consumer behavior. Based on a diverse collection of literature from a variety of disciplines including "...psychology, consumer research, psychoanalytic theory, material and popular culture studies, feminist studies, history, medicine, anthropology, and sociology" (p. 145), Belk contended that "(a) key to understanding what possessions mean is recognizing that, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves" (p. 139). The extended self was defined as being comprised of the "body, internal processes, ideas and experiences, and those persons, places and things to which one feels attached" (p. 141). While the extended self has provided a valuable impetus in the "acknowledgement of the need to extend our view of consumer behavior well beyond the traditional confines of the individual as a mechanistic buyer of goods" (Solomon 1990, p. 68), the extended self conceptualization has not been able to surmount all of the limitations which plagued earlier treatment of the self-concept in consumer behavior, particularly in terms of ambiguity inherent in its definition (e.g., Cohen 1989, Solomon 1990).

Despite these limitations, a variety of articles have subsequently appeared based on Belk's extended conceptualization of self. Drawing on observations made during the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey, Belk et al (1988) examined the relationship between collections and the extended self. Hill and Stamey (1990) addressed the extended self-concept in their examination of the possessions and consumption behaviors of the American homeless. Three papers published in the 1990 Association of Consumer Research Proceedings addressed specific domains of the extended self (Belk 1990, Mick and DeMoss 1990, Sanders 1990). Belk's (1990) paper argued for a broadened temporal definition of self and concluded with the statement that "...self extends not only to the present material environment, but extends forward and backward in time" (p. 674). This statement provides a point of departure to examine a key issue found to be lacking in recent treatments of the self-concept in consumer behavior.

Future Extensions of Self

As described by Belk (1990), the self spans past, present and future. While treatments of past and present "self" exist in the recent literature, a tripartite view of self, comprised of past, present and future dimensions, has not been fully developed. A notable exception, Schouten's (1991) discussion of identity enhancement and rites of passage offers the only explicit discussion of a future dimension of self to date. It is the contention of the current paper that recognizing and more fully exploring a future dimension of the self-concept, in the form of possible selves, will enhance the current status of consumer self- concept research.


Theoretical Foundation and Definition

Recent attention to possible selves in the field of developmental psychology (e.g., Cross and Markus 1991, Inglehart, Markus and Brown 1989, Markus and Nurius 1986, Markus and Ruvolo 1989, Oyserman and Markus 1990 a,b) has grown out of earlier work in that field which developed a formulation of the self-concept as an integrated system of self-schemas (Markus and Ruvolo 1989). Under this schematic representation of the self-concept, the individual selectively creates a different self-schema for each of the variety of domains (e.g., attributes, abilities or talents, or roles) deemed to be of critical personal importance. These self- schemas, in some instances (Cross and Markus 1991) referred to as the working self-concept, organize self-relevant information in each given domain, integrating memories of past actions, generalizations about current activities and the responsibility for future actions (Markus 1977).

As a component of these schema, possible selves may be viewed as "...the elements of the self-schema that give structure and meaning to the future in the individual's domains of investment and concern" (Markus and Ruvolo, p. 213). In other words, possible selves represent "...what we could become, what we would like to become and, most importantly, what we are afraid of becoming" (Markus and Nurius, p. 954). An important point to reiterate is that possible selves are not only "future" selves per se. Rather, as part of the working self-concept, they draw from representations of self and experiences encountered by the individual in the past and the activities of the current self, combining these with imagined representations of the self in the future.

Consistent with the distinctiveness postulate addressed by McGuire et al (1978), which argues that many of our conceptions of self are derived from interactions in the social domain, Markus and Nurius (1986) contend that while possible selves are obviously a personalized formulation, they are also distinctly social in nature. A significant social impact may be seen to influence the development of various possible selves. Acknowledging that the individual may create a wide variety of possible selves, they also propose that "(t)he pool of possible selves derives from the categories made salient by the individual's particular sociocultural and historical context and from the models, images and symbols provided by the media and by the individual's immediate social experiences" (p. 954).

The Role of Possible Selves

As incentives toward future behaviors, representing the individual's significant hopes, fears, aspiration and fantasies (Cross and Markus 1991), possible selves may be seen as acting in the role of a powerful motivational force. "As individuals choose among tasks or actions,...they are often guided by a sense, an image, or a conception of what is possible for them" (Cross and Markus, p. 232). The development of these possible selves permits the individual to imagine him/herself in a potential role or situation. As noted by Neisser (1985), the ability to clearly imagine a future role or situation is a significant factor in guiding behavior toward or away from that envisioned role or situation, as well as in devising plans of action aimed at accomplishing or avoiding the envisioned future self.

Possible selves may be either positive (e.g., the educated self, the successful self, or the healthy self) or negative (e.g., the indebted self, the out-of-shape self or the alcoholic self). Thus, the motivating function of possible selves is to encourage approach or avoidance behaviors perceived as relevant to the possible self. The recognition of a negative possible self may be a motivator for the individual to undertake certain behaviors, such as the purchase of exercise equipment or a health club membership or enrollment in an academic program; or to eliminate certain behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption or smoking, as a means of avoiding realization of the negative possible self. Conversely, a positive possible self may encourage the individual to avoid behaviors detrimental to the achievement of the possible self, or to undertake certain activities which would enhance the potential for realizing this positive possible self.

Examining Consumers' Possible Selves

Exploratory studies aimed at assessing the viability of the possible self concept (Markus and Nurius 1986) indicate that individuals are indeed able to reflect on and articulate their possible selves. Additionally, it was determined that descriptions of possible selves may be recognized as distinctively different from descriptions of current or past selves. Supplementary studies by Markus and Nurius (1986) were also able to corroborate the ability of respondents to distinguish an independent dimension within the working self-concept related to their hopes and fears. Successful corroboration of several possible self hypotheses (Cross and Markus 1991, Markus and Nurius 1986) indicates that the construct is indeed definable and measurable and, if incorporated into the current conceptualization of consumers' extended self, may serve to allay some of the concerns regarding the operationalization of the extended self. However, the possible self construct cannot simply be transferred into the study of consumer behavior. Clearly, a considerable research background would need to be developed to further support an incorporation of possible selves into the extended self concept. Specific research propositions aimed at drawing possible selves into consumer research would include:

RP1: Individuals are able to identify and articulate a distinct possible self dimension.

RP2a: Individuals are able to attribute certain consumption behaviors to the approach of envisioned positive possible selves.

RP2b: Individuals are able to attribute certain consumption behaviors to the avoidance of envisioned negative possible selves.

Several initial research questions would need to be addressed concerning the ability of consumers to recognize and articulate possible selves in the motivation of consumption behaviors. For instance, to what extent (if any) are possible selves seen as being primary motivators for consumption behaviors. Comparison of the motivational properties of positive and negative possible selves to explore any differences in terms of impact on consumption behaviors is of interest as well.

Future research questions may also address the social and situational factors which contribute to the motivating capacity of possible selves needs further exploration in a consumer context. Also of interest is the assessment of different levels of possible self influence on activities involving various product and service categories.

Routes to testing consumers' possible selves may make use of similar methods to those used in the existing body of research into possible selves (Markus and Nurius 1984, 1986, Cross and Markus 1991). These studies have combined the use of an objective survey instrument with a series of open-ended interview questions to prompt respondents to more fully articulate their experience with the phenomenon. A similar approach would be appropriate for exploratory studies explicitly addressing consumers as well.

Implications for Consumer Behavior Research

On several levels, the exploration of a possible self dimension operating on consumption behavior bears merit and future research attention. Several authors writing in the area of personality now espouse the view that those goals a person is striving to attain, or the imagined person that the individual is in the process of becoming are strong functional motivators. These future oriented images are at least as important in influencing behavior as the person's conception of who they currently are (Cross and Markus, 1991).

It seems reasonable to assert that as possible selves play a significant motivational function in guiding individual's behavior, a majority of these activities will involve some type of acquisition, consumption or disposition behavior of interest to consumer researchers. Explicitly addressing a future dimension appears to be the next logical step in the development of a holistic definition of the self-concept in consumer behavior. The incorporation of a possible self factor may prove a valuable tool in uncovering a variety of motivations which are not addressed in any of the current conceptions of self recognized in consumer behavior.

Consistent with the proposed extended self, possible selves would allow for a wholly encompassing construct to integrate past, present and future selves. By extending the view of self to incorporate what the consumer is afraid or in hopes of becoming, consumer behavior researchers may be more adequately able to address some of the more experiential aspects of consumption. An incorporation of possible selves into research questions aimed at discovering why consumers behave as they do is consistent with the current broadened perspective of the self-concept. A recognition that images of what the future may hold, past actions and experiences and all manner of situational and environmental factors impact the individual's view of self offers an all- encompassing definition of the construct.

Discovery of common possible selves among various consumer segments may serve as better indicators of the motivations underlying consumption behaviors for those segments than inquiry aimed at current perceptions of self. The J. Peterman Company of Kentucky has embraced the future orientation of its target consumers as a part of its mission. This specialty catalog retailer operates on the philosophy that "(c)learly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were" (The J. Peterman Company, Owner's Manual No. 14, 1991).

Many product or service categories purchases are essentially aimed with an eye toward assisting the consumer in achieving a positive or avoiding a negative possible self. Further examination of the ways in which these selves are recognized and the actual impact that they are able to create is warranted. Similarly, certain disposition behaviors, such as environmentally-friendly activities, may be motivated by a desire to avoid or approach possible selves, rather than being motivated by perceptions of the current self.


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