Innovative Consumers--High Empathics?


Emma Auer (1971) ,"Innovative Consumers--High Empathics?", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 289-296.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 289-296


Emma Auer, Florida State University

[Funding for this and related studies by the author was provided by two grants, 1969-1970 and 1970-1971, from the American Association of Advertising Agencies and Academic Research Grant Foundation.]

[Emma Auer is an Associate Professor in the School of Business, Florida State University, where she teaches research and consumer behavior at both graduate and undergraduate levels.]

A wide variety of data has been recorded on the traits, attributes, attitudes and behaviors of consumer innovators, tastemakers, or high mobiles who are said to constitute between 2.5% to 10% of the population. [Britt, S.H. Influences of Innovators and Leaders Consumer Behavior a the Behavioral Sciences New York: Wiley 1967 281-297.] Robertson has hypothesized that innovative behavior is a function of: 1) predisposing factors of venturesomeness, social integration, cosmopolitanism, social mobility, privilegedness and other personality variables; and 2) exposure and response to the communication flow regarding innovation. [Robertson, T.S. Determinates of Consumer Behavior. Changing Marketing Systems: Consumer, Corporate and Government Interfaces in R. Moyer Ed.), Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1967 Winter Conference Proceedings Series, No. 26. 328-332.]

Innovator consumers are presumed to exist on all socioeconomic levels. [Britt, op. cit., 286.]

This paper is the first, to the best of this author's knowledge, to report a pilot study on the testing of innovative consumers for empathic skills, skills of social cognition or social acuity, or in the vernacular the ability to put oneself in the other fellow's shoes.

This pilot study is a complement to a larger study by the author researching empathic skills in professional advertising communicators and potential professional advertising communicators (college students who elect to take advertising courses at the undergraduate level). [Auer, E. The Function of Empathy as Represented in Transactional Models of Communication: A Test of Professional and Student Advertising Communicators, Journalism Quarterly (forthcoming); first prize winner in 1968 AEJ dissertation contest, Berkeley, 1969. Social Acuity Measurement in Generators and Receivers of Advertising Messages. .n R. L. King (Ed.), Abstracts from the 1970 Annual Meetings: Southern Finance Association, Southern Management Association, Southern Marketing Association,Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1971. ___. Are Professional Communicators Empathic?, Occasional Papers in Advertising, 1971; 4, 39-50.]

Empathic skill or skill in social cognition or social perception or social acuity as understood in this study is of two major types. These have been defined by Urie Bronfenbrenner as: 1) sensitivity to individual differences(i.e. interpersonal sensitivity); and 2) sensitivity to the generalized other(i.e. awareness of the social norm or the typical response of a large class or group). Accurate judgment of a particular other appeared to Bronfenbrenner to call for both types of skill [Bronfenbrenner, U., Harding, J. & Gallwey, M. The Measurement of Skill on Social Perception, tn D.C. McClelland (ed.), Talent and Society Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1958, 39-40.] though there is debate in the literature on this subject.

The theoretical framework within which all of this author's studies of the above described empathic skills have been conducted is that provided by the conceptualization present in the symbolic interactionist model of human communication conceived by J. Edward Hulett, Jr. [Hulett, J.E., Hr. Symbolic Interactionist Model of Human Communications, AV Communication Review, Part 1, 1966 14, 5-33; Part II, 14, 203-220.]

Hulett's model strongly implies that for effective human communication of transactive nature to take place there must be present in both generators and receivers of messages empathic skills necessary for the successful a) identification of self; b) identification of others; c) identification of relationships between self, and others; d) identification by means of "role playing" of messages suitable for use in a given relationship, in a given situation, regarding a given subject; e) identification by means of "role taking" of the probable reception of messages deemed suitable in a given relationship, in a given situation, regarding a given subject.

Hulett's symbolic interactionist interpretation of communication as a transactional event or act derives from the works of George Herbert Mead. [Ibid., 10-11.] In the Hulett (and Mead) sense, the message generated and "sent" becomes an "object" to the target person. Whatever meaning this object has, for the receiver, is put there by the receiver, not by the sender. [Ibid., 15.]

As early as 1968, while testing professional advertising communicators for empathic skills, this author became curious to test an hypothesis that innovative consumptive leaders in the fashion area would prove to be as high scorers on tests of empathic skills(i.e. potentially as skilled as communicators albeit, at the receiving end) as were professional communicators (high empathics) on the sending end of advertising communication. She reasoned that the high empathic consumptive pattern would be a four stage process which would go something like the following: innovative consumptive leaders might 1) be extra active seekers for stimuli in the environment, in the Mead sense; but whether they actually proved to be such or not they would at least have 2) better than average ability in social perception in evaluating stimuli sought; and as a result of 1 and/or 2 they might 3) accumulate extra knowledge which in turn could lead to 4) extra interest in a specific area or areas of innovative consumption which accumulated or "snowballed" as a result of expertise in 1, 2 and 3.

Obviously a first step in such an investigation would be to test a group or groups of innovative consumers for empathic skills.

In the spring of 1970 the midi/maxi/longuette triad of fashion silhouettes --representing the first stage of the first major change in fashion in about four years--seemed to have survived the first crucial stages of fashion diffusion and was--in at least a few large cities--showing signs of viability within several segments of the fashion public or population

I advertised in May, 1970 that I would pay any respondent who owned a midi, maxi, or longuette fashion who was willing to take a battery of pencil and paper tests on a given date. Data taken from a convenience sample of 146 female undergraduates at Florida State University just two months earlier had showed that 53 respondents owned one or more midi, maxi or longuette fashions.

Twenty self designated innovators presented themselves for the testing-garbed, in a number of cases, in fashion proof of innovativeness.

Tests used in this study were four which had been developed by Guilford and associates within the framework of Guilford's theory of intellect. Guilford's cube model of his unified theory of intellect had been updated in 1959 to contain four instead of three columns across the front or horizontal dimension of the model. These four columns represent kinds of material or content to which operations performed by the intellect may apply. The fourth, or newest column, added to the Guilford model on a purely theoretical basis in 1959, though forecast as early as 1957, was labeled "behavioral" and represented "the kinds of materials generally referred to as 'social perception' "(or empathy), according to Guilford. [Guilford, J.P. Intellectual Resources and Their Values as Seen by Scientists. In C.TH. Taylor and F. Barron (Eds.) Scientific Creativity: Its Recognition and Development. New York: Wiley, 1963, 102-105.] [Operations performed by the intellect are shown on a dimension from front to back of the cube model developed by Guilford. These are 'starting from the front) cognition, memory, divergent thinking, convergent thinking and evaluation. The vertical demension of the Guilford model represents a third class of categories, that of products of the intellect. These are from top to bottom): units, classes, relations, systems transformations, and implications. Since each cell represents a unique combination of three category values it is possible to give each cell a three-letter designation representing operation first letter', content 4second letter', and produce (third letter). Idem.]

Guilford tests used in this research [Psychological testing in this study was carried out under the aegis of Dr. J. Hulett Jr.] had been developed to measure skills (social cognition) represented by six of the total 30 cells or factors within the "behavioral" column of the model of the human intellect. [0'Sullivan, M., Guilford, J.P. & de Mille, R. The Measurement of Social Intelligence. Los Angeles: The University of Southern California, June, 1965, 5.]

These were:

a) Missing Cartoons, significantly loaded on factors CBU, CBS, and CBI (cognition of behavioral units, systems and implications, respectively),

b) Expression Groupings, a factor pure test measures CBC(cognition of behavioral classes),

c) Social Translations, significantly loaded on factors CBR and CBT (cognition of behavioral relations and transformations, respectively>,

d) Cartoon Predictions a factor pure test which measures CBI(cognition of behavioral implications). [Ibid., p. 30.] [Given together the four listed Guilford test a yield a social cognition composite score for which norms are available. According to the test manual, this composite score is the best overall score for the measurement of social cognition now available. O'Sullivan & J.P. Guilford. Six Factor Tests of Social intelligence. Beverly Hills: Sheridan Psychological Services, Inc., 1966, 7.] [Because in the rigorous testing each Guilford test went through during its creation at the University of Southern California total score distribution was checked for normality of distribution and appropriate scaling techniques applied if data were other than normally distributed (O'Sullivan, et al, op. cit., 17), it was assumed in this study that social acuity or intelligence as measured by Guilford tests is normally distributed in the population as a whole. Guilford test means furnished as normative data were used as population means, and Guilford standard deviations were used as population standard deviations. "his assumption was checked with Dr. Nancy Wiggins, of the Psychology Department and of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois. Dr. Wiggins approved this assumption in a letter to the author, June 14, 1968.]

Social cognition, measured by the above four tests is defined by Guilford as the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and intentions (psychological dispositions) of other people. This comprehension of other people does not include comprehension of the generalized other(the average college sophomore, the middle-class American housewife). The Bronfenbrenner reference mentioned earlier in this paper is cited as substantiation for the fact that stereotypic understanding is clearly distinguished from social sensitivity involved in knowing the feelings of a given individual. [O'Sullivan, et. al., op. cit., 5.]

The test of stereotypic understanding utilized in research reported here was that of Ronald Leon Johnson. Johnson had little normative data when he filed his thesis containing his test at Michigan State but he invited further testing of and use of his instrument. [Johnson, R.L. Correlates of a lest of Group Sensitivity. Unpublished master's thesis, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1963.]

The .05 level of significance was set in advance for this study.

The small sample of 20 self designated innovative consumers tested had a mean score on Guilford tests of sensitivity to individual differences as significantly different (.001 level) from the population mean as were the means of the professional sample of 464 advertising communicators and of the potential professional sample of 644 college advertising students tested by the author. In contrast, a control group of 35 business fraternity respondents tested at FSU showed a mean on Guilford test scores not significantly different from the test designers' mean at any level.



When individual Guilford test scores of the midi sample were broken out from profile scores, the innovators registered the widest difference from the population norms on Social Translations, the test which loads on factors having to do with cognition of behavioral relations and cognition of behavioral translations.

Professional advertising communicators also register their highest z score on Social Translations (11.52).

The potential professional communicators--college advertising students-register their highest z score on Cartoon Predictions, a factor pure test which measures cognition of behavioral implications.

Step wise regression analysis was used to determine which one or two of the Guilford tests would furnish the best prediction of the profile scores for each sample of the above three mentioned: midi, professional, potential professional. [All computer analysis used in connection with this study was programmed by Dean Allmon, Ph. D. candidate in the School of Business, Florida State University.]

For the midi sample, a combination of Expression Groupings and Cartoon Predictions offered the best predictor.

For the professional communicators a combination of Missing Cartoons and Cartoon Predictions offers the best predictor.

For the potential communicators a combination of Missing Cartoons and Social Translations offers the best predictor.

There is no generalized pattern of prediction here. From this one may infer that in order to use a shortened version of the Guilford battery of tests to test various kinds of communicators for empathy the population from which the sample is taken must be identified before the correct tests can be chosen. This suggests the need for further study to justify the feasibility of administration of a partial battery of these tests in the kinds of research described here.



Nothing resembling a population mean exists for any test of stereotypic accuracy of which this researcher has knowledge. Data amassed by this author in connection with Johnson's test of stereotypic understanding may well be, therefore, some of the most extensive in existence.

When the midi sample mean on the Johnson test of stereotypic accuracy is compared with those of four other samples the difference is significant on the positive side or in the "right" direction in two cases, but negative or in the "wrong" direction--though not significantly so in two others. Midi owners might be said to belong to the same "population" as graduate psychology students and agency professional when it comes to scoring on skills of stereotypic accuracy, though their mean score is on the low side compared with the mean scores of the other two samples. The midi sample does show a mean score significantly higher (.05 level) than the mean of either the college advertising sample or the high school convenience sample tested by this author.



The breakout of four parts of the Johnson Judgment of Interest scores adds little to the picture, except to show the probable source of difference between scores of midi and agency samples to be part four of the stereotypic accuracy test (that part having to do with differences in interests of professional and unskilled workers).



The midi sample of 20 was asked one question which could yield data related to opinion leadership. This question was: How important is it to you to be considered a person whose opinions on major fashion topics in the news are well founded? Answers possible were: Very important (4), Fairly important (3), Not very important (2), and Not at all important (1). The midi group made an average score of 1.95 on the question. [This question is one of seven adapted by the author from a questionnaire on public affairs opinion leadership developed by the reported by C. Troldahl and Van Dam. A New Scale for Identifying Public-Affairs Opinion Leaders, Journalism Quarterly, 1965, 42, 655-657.]

This study showed that a female sample of self identified innovators in the fashion area (midi, maxi, longuette owners) made on a battery of tests designed to measure sensitivity to individual differences a mean score different from that of the population in general not only at the significance level chosen in advance of this study (.05), but at the .001 level as well.

This same sample group registered on a second type of test of empathic skill (a test of stereotypic accuracy) a mean score which showed them not significantly different in possession of this skill from two other samples--one of professional advertising communicators and another of graduate students of psychology. Both professional communicator and graduate psychology student samples had been shown by earlier research to be significantly more empathic(stereotypically accurate) than samples drawn from high school and college advertising student populations

If one accepts the assumption that empathic skills in judging both individual and stereotypic differences are crucial to success in transactional human communication, then one must infer that the sample of innovative consumers studied in this exploratory research must be potentially very talented communicators - on a par at least with a group of graduate psychology students and with a sample of professional advertising communicators.

If, additionally, one studies the results of step wise regression analysis applied to scores on tests of sensitivity to individual differences of midi owners, professional communicators and potential professional communicators, the one test predictive of the midi owners high scores not common to the predictive equations of the other two samples in question was Expression Groupings a factor pure test of cognition of behavioral classes.

According to this study, cognition of behavioral classes(the ability to abstract common attributes from various behavioral examples of information derived from behavioral and expressive stimuli) [O'Sullivan and Guilford, op. cit., 2.] is an important criterion of innovative consumer behavior of the kind reported here.

This study shows the need for additional testing for empathic skills of both men and women consumers of innovative products not only in the clothing field, but in the food, car, home furnishings, appliance, drink, and leisure fields as well. Obviously, this study should also be replicated with both men and women consumers who prefer to wait until products in all of the above mentioned categories are widely diffused before they will risk their money on them. This author feels strongly that future research of the kind attempted here should be done by collecting data on the social facts of innovative behavior represented by the consumption of real products, degree of consumer acceptance of which is warranted at the time of each testing or researching. Perhaps the correlation of that kind of data with attitudinal data on self designated opinion leadership would give new insight into those areas of investigation as well. [In at least one study on peer designated "fashion leader" semi-finalists in Glamour Magazine contests held on two campuses, the author found that there was a strong likelihood that the contestants were "popular" girls rather than those who exhibited fashion leadership behavior in terms of innovative fashion products.]

Finally, the results of the research reported here suggest to this author the need for additional research to determine the possibility that empathic skill may turn out to be an antecedent variable to heavy or wide exposure to and response to the communication flow regarding innovation, which Robertson hypothesizes stand in functional relationship to innovative behavior. It might likewise be hypothesized and tested that empathic skill is an antecedent variable to venturesomeness and cosmopolitanism, both predisposing factors to innovativeness in Robertson's model of innovative behavior.



Emma Auer, Florida State University


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

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