A Social Psychological Analysis of the Adoption and Diffusion of New Products and Practices From a Uniqueness Motivation Perspective


Howard L. Fromkin (1971) ,"A Social Psychological Analysis of the Adoption and Diffusion of New Products and Practices From a Uniqueness Motivation Perspective", 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: 464-469.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 464-469


Howard L. Fromkin, Purdue University

[The research described in this paper was funded by a Canada Council Pre-doctoral grant and grants by the Krannert Graduate School of Industrial Administration to Howard L. Fromkin. The comments of Jacob Jacoby on an earlier version of this paper are gratefully acknowledged.]

During the past two decades, the process of adoption and diffusion of new practices and products has captured the attention of many social scientists (cf., Rogers & Stanfield, 1968) in at least 14 identifiable disciplines (cf., King, 1966). This renewed interest has been provoked by two major problems in society. First, estimates of the number of new products rejected by the consumer range from 50 to 90 per cent (e.g., Booz-Allen & Hamiliton, 1960; Lee, 1967). This represents a tragic waste of vast amounts of economic resources. Second, the recent identification of failures to disseminate a broad range of socially desirable practices, such as birth control methods, farming practices and nutritional food substitutes, etc., demonstrates dramatically the importance of further research. In spite of the vital need to understand the processes of acceptance of new practices and products, only a small portion of the research seems guided by systematic theory. The present paper briefly applies a social psychological perspective to the central component of adoption and diffusion processes, i.e., the identification of "innovators". In order to honor a commitment and to the title and time allotment for this paper, the presentation is divided into two parts: (a) the origin and recent research on uniqueness motivation; and (b) some postulated relationships between the dynamics of uniqueness motivation and relevant findings in the diffusion and-adoption literature.


The concept of uniqueness motivation was stimulated by earlier research on commodity theory (Brock, 1968; Fromkin, 1968; Fromkin and Brock, 1971; Fromkin, Olson, Dipboye, & Barnaby, 1971). Commodity theory is based on the economic principles of supply and demand but departs from the oversimplified economic view of "rational man". In economic theory, scarce commodities are valued because of an expectation that the commodities will increase in monetary value because of their scarcity, e.g., a rare painting. Commodity theory, in contrast to economic theory, is a psychological theory which suggests that individuals value unavailable commodities because of scarcity, in and of itself, when there is no demand or increased monetary reward associated with the scarcity. A "commodity" is defined by Brock (1968) as any object (e.g., informational, experiential or material stimuli) which a potential possessor perceives as useful to him and as conveyable from person to person. The value of a commodity may be defined as its effectiveness in producing acceptance.

For example, Fromkin and Brock (1971) presented subjects in a naturalistic field experiment with identical counter-attitudinal messages under two different conditions. Under scarcity conditions, some subjects were asked to leave because it was alleged that only a small number of persons could hear the message. Under plentiful conditions, additional subJects were asked to hear the message because it was alleged that large numbers of persons were to hear the message. Subjects who received the message under scarcity conditions changed their attitude in the direction advocated by the message more than subjects who received the message under plentiful conditions. In a laboratory experiment, Fromkin (1968, pp. 268-270) presented subjects with a fictitious pre-recorded interview between a Dean and a student who was allegedly caught cheating on an exam. The Dean questioned the student about an incident on the student's previous record. Under some conditions, the student did not reveal information about the incident until the Dean had made several threats against the student for failure to disclose this information. Under other conditions, the student revealed this information immediately, the first independent variabLe. The information revealed by the student demonstrated either the student's prior honesty or prior dishonesty, the second independent variable. After hearing further discussion about the current cheating incident subjects perceived the student as more guilty (or less guilty, depending upon the honesty or dishonesty of the prior incident) and assigned more severe punishments 'or less severe punishments depending on the honesty or dishonesty of the prior incident) to the student under conditions of high threat than under conditions of low threat. This latter experiment demonstrates the potency of an additional operationalization of unavailability, i.e., the degree of coercion required to obtain the commodity (Fromkin, 1968).

The above experiments demonstrate increased valuation for scarce informational stimuli. Another experiment by Fromkin, Olson, Dipboye, and Barnaby (1971) examined the psychological notion of scarcity for a material commodity, Female subjects allegedly participated in a market research project being conducted by a French nylon hosiery company. The alleged representative of that company showed a 15 minute film showing that their new product compared favorably with leading American competitors. The experimenter informed subjects that in order to test interest in the nylons, the company has a large number of samples or only a small number of samples to be given out in the United States, the first independent variable. Only half of the subjects expected to receive a pair of nylons, the second independent variable. Higher valuation of the nylons was obtained under scarcity conditions regardless of whether or not subjects expected to obtain a pair of the nylons. These findings raise the question, why do people value scarce commodities more than plentiful commodities, -- especially when the scarcity was unrelated to expected increments in market value of the commodity.

Relationship between Scarcity and Uniqueness Theory

One possible explanation for the valuation of scarce commodities is that the scarce commodities are in some way related to interpersonal processes of self presentation, In the early 1890's, William James remarked that "the line between what is me and mine is very hard to draw." It was reasoned by Fromkin (1968) that the possession of scarce commodities is one socially acceptable way go redefine the self as different or unique in a society which is rampant with pressures toward conformity and forces of dehumanization or deindividuation. For example, unique material possessions such as automobiles, household appertences and clothing may serve to define that person as different from his neighbor and therefore contribute to his feelings of differentness. The two major assumptions of the above explanation are: (a) there is a need to see oneself as different; and (b) valuation of scarce commodities, when scarcity implies no economic gain, may be attributed to static or dynamic states of uniqueness motivation. If such a motivational state exists in some individuals, feelings of extreme interpersonal similarity will produce different behavior than feelings of extreme interpersonal dissimilarity. Furthermore, the behavior manifest under feelings of interpersonal similarity, when aroused by a variety of operational procedures, will be related to attempts at unique self presentation in a number of different response domains.

A number of different experiments were conducted to test these notions. Two different methods were used to arouse feelings of interpersonal similarity and dissimilarity. The first method, test feedback method, provided subjects with fictitious results from an extensive battery of tests which allegedly measure their personality, values, attitudes, interests and so forth. The test results described subject as either highly similar or highly dissimilar to thousands of their peers, the second method, deindividuation method, attempted to simulate features of the college environment which subjects reported in a previous survey (Fromkin and Demming, 1967) as the cause of feelings of extreme similarity and dissimilarity. For example, the experimental instructions emphasized that the project was interested (or not interested) in the responses of large groups of subjects and requested subjects to use their assigned experimental numbers (or to use their proper names) and so forth. The dependent variable in the first experiment was performance in a modified form of Guilford's (1950) Unusual Uses Task: the number of "unique uses" subjects suggested for a common every day object i.e. a shoe. The dependent variable in the second experiment was obtained from a projective measure which required subjects to rate the degree of similarity -- dissimilarity between themselves and a highly ambiguous representation of an unknown other college student (as depicted in a blurred photograph). The dependent variable in the third experiment was the nature of and the degree of positive and negative affect associated with heightened feelings of similarity as measured by a modified form of the Mood Adjective Check List (cf., Nowlis, 1965). The findings demonstrated that feelings of extreme similarity affected subjects differently than feelings of dissimilarity in a manner which support the contentions of uniqueness motivation and demonstrate the validity of the first assumption. When feelings of extreme similarity were aroused: subjects generated a greater number of unique uses for a common object (Fromkin, 1968b); subjects emphasized their dissimilarity from an unknown other person (Fromkin, 1968b): and subjects expressed more intense feelings of unpleasantness and less intense feelings of pleasantness (Fromkin, 1969).

It was suggested above that scarce commodities, e.g., informational stimuli, experiential stimuli, or material stimuli, are more valued because they contribute to feelings of distinctiveness. If the above postulation is valid, scarce commodities should be more valued following heightened feelings of similarity than following heightened feelings of differentness. An experiment was conducted by Fromkin (1970) to examine the proposed relationship between need for uniqueness and valuation of scarce commodities. Following the arousal of feelings of extreme interpersonal similarity via the test feedback method, the first independent variable subjects were introduced to a second experiment which was allegedly examining the effects of drugs on sensory experiences. The instructions explained that, in lieu of using actual drugs, four electronically equipped rooms were constructed to simulate drug experiences. The four psychedelic environments were described as producing sensory experiences without any harmful effects. Two of the rooms were described as available to all college students and two of the rooms were described as unavailable to most college students because of scheduling problems. the second independent variable. One available and one unavailable environment was described as producing very novel experiences and one available and one unavailable environment was described as producing very familiar experiences, the third independent variable. SubJects then rated the magnitude of their desire and how much time in minutes they wanted to participate in each of four rooms, the dependent variables. The findings on both "behavioroid" measures (Aronson & Carlsmith, 1968, p. 54) support the hypothesis that preferences for unavailable experiences increase as feelings of similarity increased regardless of the perceived novelty of the environments.

To summarize, a series of experiments demonstrate that behavior following heightened feelings of interpersonal similarity 18 quite different from the behavior following feelings of interpersonal dissimilarity. Furthermore, behavior in several different response domains reflect the person's attempt to define oneself as different from his peers. Although it is recognized that measurable individual differences in the need uniqueness do exist, the present approach focuses on situational factors which heighten or depress the need without regard for individual differences. The following discussion demonstrates that uniqueness theory when applied to the valuation of scarce commodity response domain, generates post hoc explanations of many research findings regarding the identification of innovators and novel predictions regarding the identification of innovators.

Relevant Aspects of Adoption and Diffusion Research

It is frequently observed that the adoption of new products by large numbers of people is preceded by acceptance by a few initial purchasers. Furthermore, certain types of people are more likely than others to accept innovations across a number of product categories (Jacoby, 1971). "Innovations" are typically defined subjectiveLy in relation to the perceptual processes of the innovator ar,d objectively in relation to the characteristics of the innovation. For example, Rogers (1962, p. 13) and King (1965, p. 665) refer to any idea or product perceived by a potential innovator to be new. Other definitions refer to the obJective characteristics of new products, such as new models or new packages and so forth. The present approach accepts both definitions but requires some limiting restrictions. In order for uniqueness notions to be applied to the identification of innovators, the potential innovator must perceive that other persons can also perceive the idea or product to be new. Given the massive advertising campaigns which accompany the introduction of new products, large numbers Of products will not be eliminated from consideration by the above modification. More important is the assumption that most new products are initially scarce. This seems reasonable because most manufacturers are reluctant to mass produce new products before they are widely accepted. Furthermore, new products are perceived as relatively "scarce" because the innovator will recognize that most other individuals are unlikely to possess the new product at the time of his adoption.

While the relationship between new products and scarcity in general may be somewhat ambiguous, there are a multitude Of cases where newness directly implies scarcity. For example, Fromkin, Olson, Dipboye & Barnaby (1971) noted that a number of recent advertising campaigns emphasized products as scarce or available only in limited quantities. A major television manufacturer announced that only 2000 television sets of a particular model were to be produced and marketed. A television commercial asked consumers to be patient in their attempts to find a store that had not "sold-out" of their brand of razors. An automobile manufacturer stressed the limited production of a new model. Although all of the above examples represent different connotations of unavailability, they share the underlying assumption that the perception of product scarcity enhances product desirability and Ultimately leads to increased sales.

The most generally accepted model of the adoption process includes five stages (cf., Rogers. 1962). It is likely that uniqueness motivation will influence the behavior of innovators in the first four stages, i.e., awareness, interest, evaluation and trial. For example, heightened perceptual awareness to characteristics of self and others occurs under conditions of uniqueness arousal (Fromkin, 1968b: Fromkin, Dipboye & Pyle, 1971). Thus, high levels of uniqueness arousal may be a characteristic common to those consumers who are generally more aware of new products. Clearly, under the uniqueness motive perspective, awareness of the scarcity attribute of a new product is one necessary pre-condition to adoption of new products by innovators. 'The "interest stage" is frequently described as a search for information about how others regard the usefulness and quality of the new product. However, a product qualifies or disqualifies as a means of unique self definition only when these social comparisons yield information about the actual scarcity of the new product. Given that the above necessary uniqueness pre-conditions are activated in the earlier stages, the new product will receive positive "evaluation" by innovators and will lead to at least a probationary "trial". Of course, continued use of the new product (e.g., adoption) will be determined by a number of other factors such as cost and durability of new product and so forth..

Although a number of specific findings in the adoption and diffusion literature tends to support the usefulness of uniqueness motivation for the identification of innovators, only a few exemplars will be presented today. For example, social psychologists have observed the relationship between group membership and identity (cf., Simmel, 1955) and also the loss of identity experienced by newcomers upon entering new social, vocational, and community groups (cf., Ziller, 1964, 1965). Fromkin (1968b) has speculated that these conditions heighten feelings of interpersonal similarity and result in behavior directed toward re-definition of the self as different from others in his environment. One socially acceptable means of unique self definition is possession of and/or communication about scarce products to other persons. Thus, Shaw's (1965) finding that highly mobile persons tend to be innovationprone seems derivable from uniqueness notions, Second, Fromkin (1968b) has experimentally demonstrated that creative behavior, as measured by Guilford's (1950) Unusual Uses Task, increases when the magnitude of uniqueness arousal increases This suggests that high uniqueness needs will tend to be manifest in creative behavior when creative behavior serves as a vehicle to define the self as interpersonally different. If the postulated relationship between uniqueness motives and the tendency to accept new products is valid, innovators will tend to be more creative than late adopters. This latter uniqueness theory derivation has been substantiated in research cited by Zaltman (1965). Third, the process of self definition for any attribute, e g., uniqueness, is accomplished by means of social interaction and social comparison. Fromkin (1968b) suggests that high levels of uniqueness arousal require the individual to be more interpersonally active in pursuit of opportunities to define the self as unique. The postulated relationship between uniqueness motivation and innovators again receives post hoc support from the findings that innovators tend to be more gregarious than late adopters (cf., Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955; King, 1964).

Last, novel predictions may be derived from application of uniqueness theory to the identification of innovators. For example "social visibility" is a characteristic of new products which likely enhances positive evaluation by innovators with a high need for uniqueness. That is, although innovators will value new products more than plentiful products under conditions of uniqueness arousal, an additional increment in valuation of new products will occur when the product's newness is observable both to the innovator and to others in his social environment. For example, a new item of clothing apparel such as a coat or slacks will likely be more valued for its contribution to feelings of differentness than a new pair of socks or undergarments. Similarly, a new sofa or television set which is relatively prominent in living rooms is more likely to be valued for its contribution to feelings of differentness than a new furnace, washing machine or soft water system.

To summarize, although the observed tendency for some persons to be "innovation prone" has been attributed to "venturesomeness" or favorable attitudes toward new ideas and practices (cf., Rogers, 1962, p. 169), such tendencies may instead reflect uniqueness motivation. Fromkin's (1968b) uniqueness notions provide a heuristic perspective for identifying and predicting the behavior of innovators. If a measure of uniqueness motivation had been taken among members of this audience, one could predict which members would be aware of, interested in, positively evaluate and prone to try new products and ideas such as the innovative perspective outlined in this paper.


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Howard L. Fromkin, Purdue University


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

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