Presidential Address Schemer Schema: Consumers' Intuitive Theories About Marketers' Influence Tactics


Peter Wright (1986) ,"Presidential Address Schemer Schema: Consumers' Intuitive Theories About Marketers' Influence Tactics", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-3.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 1-3



Peter Wright, Stanford University

I'd like to use this occasion to wonder aloud about a topic that I've been wondering privately about for some time. It's something I think many people would take for granted that we, as students of consumer psychology, obviously must know about, something that I too think we obviously should know about; but something we don't know much about. It's a theme each of the following incidents brings to mind:

On the second day of class, a student in my introductory advertising course states her strong view that a particular TV ad is highly effective because it's funny and because a celebrity, Bill Cosby, is in it.

I'm sitting in a tavern at Half Moon Bay on the Northern California coast. Two grizzled commercial fishermen sit nearby. I overhear them eagerly agreeing that subliminal messages are the key to successful advertising. One of them concludes that he could increase the amount of salmon he sells direct to locals off his boat if he could figure a way to paint a subliminal image into his "Fresh Fish" sign.

A sweet neophyte real estate agent who I know marvels aloud about all the tortured plotting and strategizing that house sellers and buyers engage in, about all the times she hears people reason "now if we do this, here's what they'll do because they're thinking that...". And, from repeatedly interacting with buyers, sellers, and other sales agents herself, I hear her begin to piece together her own intuitive hypotheses about how to nurture and influence people's bargaining and decision making.

Stew Bither and I are about to run an experiment to see if and when distraction increases an ad's persuasive impact. We nervously joke to each other that subjects will probably blurt out, midway through the ad, "Aha! The old 'Distraction Hypothesis'!"

A PhD student from the Economics department (of all places) comes to me ant says the takeoff point for his dissertation is the assumption that consumers sometimes interpret a retailer's "Grand Opening Sale" as an intended signal to them about his cost structure and probable future competitive strategies. He asks what we know about the prevalence of that particular type of inference by consumers. I reply, "It sounds plausible and intriguing. But we know nothing, really. So, you're safe."

I pass out course evaluation questionnaires and say, nervously, "You know, some researchers have used the end-of-course Nielsen ratings as a setting for studying how attitudes can be changed. If I was to be really Machiavellian, here's what I'd do to increase the ratings you give. I would ....". Afterwards, several students say, "Gee, what you described doing is just what our Finance Professor did when we did his course ratings." I reply, "Oh really. How clever."

Finally, I'm asked to comment about recent research on "attitudes-toward-the ad." So I begin pondering how respondents produce answers to questions like "was that ad convincing?" or "was that a good or bad ad?". It occurs to me that they may interpret "good" in this context to mean "good at doing what ads are designed to do." And that to answer either question, they may well rely on personal theories they harbor about what makes ads persuasive. They're responding as critics, not as audience members.

Isn't it very plausible that people have intuitive theories about the tactics that are used in the game of marketplace selling-and-buying? They surely must have personal insights that are pertinent for realizing "Aha! Somebody scheming to sell me something! Somebody's trying to mind-screw me!", and for interpreting and evaluating and dealing with whatever influence tactics are being used. I'll call such an intuitive theory about marketers' influence tactics a "schemer schema." We don't know much about consumers' "schemer schema," about whether they're simplistic or complex, correct or incorrect, how often they're activated, or how easily they're modified. It's not something we've chosen to study directly. I'd like to speculate a little about that, and about why it'd be interesting to know more.

Why Haven't We Studied "Schemer Schema"?

Looking back, there are several reasons why consumer researchers haven't focused directly on people's intuitive theories about marketers' influence tactics. "Basic" behavioral scientists in general haven't studied this topic. Social psychologists, for example, have for decades studied the persuasion and education process. But they've almost always framed the research question as "what works," that is, what actually causes a change in people's preferences. Not what do the targets or the purveyors of influence attempts in everyday life believe about the social influence process --- about what tactics people are likely to try; about what tactics work, and when and why; and about how then to adjust one's own response process accordingly. The "what works" viewpoint is implicitly normative in its goals. It positions researchers to make recommendations about maximally effective intervention tactics to aspiring interventionists. If even "basic" behavioral scientists have taken this perspective, it's natural that consumer researchers would have done so too. Further, the person whose behavior is typically studied is the target of an influence attempt, not someone designing their own influence attempt. The act of designing an influence strategy requires use of an intuitive "schemer schema." Had we been studying that act we'd have naturally recognized that the same schema that guides the person when they're the "schemer" may come into play when they're a target (a "schemee"?). So certain historic preoccupations have distracted us from the concept that intuitive schemer schema are both likely to exist and likely to shape how people play either side of the marketplace game.

But isn't the playing of the marketplace game the phenomenon that is logically central to our field, and to no other? It seems we'd have naturally been drawn to a gaming and countergaming view of that key happening. To a bargaining and negotiation view. To the view that our unique focus should be on what unfolds in the minds of two players matching wits in a game where both realize full well that "somebody's trying to sell somebody something". And that each party's assumptions about "the player on the other side" are important to understand if we want to make sense of what occurs.

I think we never embrace that view in part because we've been hungry to make our young field legitimate. To do this, in the late 1960's and 1970's many influential researchers felt compelled to say, by their words and their choice of research topics, "Virtually all aspects of human psychology are relevant to someone's behavior as a consumer, so our domain of inquiry can be as broad and basic as any behavioral scientist's." I agree with that idea, of course. But its caused us to ignore that specific aspect of behavior --- the marketplace gamesplaying --- that is the unique centerpiece of our field. To just study how consumers interpret and cope with marketer's tactics seemed too "applied," too 'parochial." So we spread our small ranks thin trying to contribute in understanding the basics of human choice processes and memory processes, and I think we've helped. But in ignoring the nitty-gritty buyer-and-seller give-and-take process, I think we're missing an opportunity. An opportunity to really understand "our" unique phenomenon, a phenomenon that turns out not to be "merely" how buyers and sellers subjectively analyze each other but one that's a pervasive general phenomenon --- how aspiring interventionists or change agents and their targets analyze each other in any venue.

I'd hate to see us miss this opportunity. There are signs that people in other fields are starting to dabble with the question of "schemer schema." Psychologists like Robert Cialdini and David Kipnis and organizational theorists like Stuart Schmidt are doing some work on intuition about persuasion. At Stanford I'm surrounded by microeconomists active in the "information economics" area, like Bob Wilson and Dave Kreps and John Roberts, who are making all sorts of interesting assumptions about first-order and second-order signalling between sellers and buyers, and working out some implications. The major explanatory theories on the playing of marketplace influence and signalling games should, in my opinion, come from researchers who define themselves as consumer researchers. If it ultimately turns out that understanding the intuitive gamesplaying of sellers and buyers per se was important in building general theories of behavior, explanatory or normative, we should be the ones who did it. If it turns out that studying schemer schema was a blind alley, that people just don't have such things or don't use them as guides to action, we should be the ones to draw that conclusion.

The Schemer Schema As A "Control" Schema

In doing research on psychological processes, we don't typically seek to identify the contents of any particular schema or knowledge structure in people's minds. We don't go around cataloguing the contents of people's schema about, say, "motorcycles" or "fast food restaurants" or "gambling." The content of those particular schema is of concern only to people narrowly interested in knowing what people believe about motorcycles or gambling for some practical reason. As behavioral scientists, it's the processes related to schema, not their contents, about which we theorize. We're more comfortable asking, "By what psychological process is any schema formed, activated, used, and modified?" Why then should we depart from this rule, and actually theorize about and study the contents of people schema about other people's social influence strategies? Because that's just what I'm suggesting we do.

I think there is a good rationale for this. A "schemer schema", as I envision it, operates as what we might c a "control" schema. I don't mean that it deals with how people control other people. A "control" schema is one that when activated, guides a person's subsequent response process. In particular, it guides their situational adjustments in response processes. So, for example, when someone encounters a sales message or promotional or pricing move related to "motorcycles," the response strategy they select is contingent on what their working hypotheses about selling or marketing tactics are like. To be sure, their schema about "motorcycles" per se is activated. But the control schema "what I believe about likely persuasion and promotion strategies" -- is first activated, ant that guides the situation-specific process of response. In my example, the person's "motorcycle schema" supplies the input to the ultimate response process, ant isn't something we'd bother theorizing about or studying. But the "background" schema that shapes the response process is different. To really understand the process of situational responses to marketers' influence attempts, it seems essential to attack the contents of the "background" control schemas directly in our theorizing and research.

The role of a control schema can be clarified by noting an analogous control schema in the contex of "contingent decision making". For over a decade many researchers on behavioral choice processes have recognized that people seem to adjust choice strategies to suit the situation. That is, people seem to !'choose a choice strategy", to "decide how to decide." If so, so the theorizing goes, there's probably a control schema at work, which contains people's personal ideas about what outcomes various approaches to choosing may produce This hasn't usually been discussed in schema terms, but those ideas constitute what we might call a person's "choice strategy schema." Somehow, it comes into play when people adjust choice strategies. It guides the very choice process that we want so badly to understand. Ant therefore it's essential that we formally theorize about and get insights on the contents of people's intuitive assumptions about choice strategies. Even though it's one step removed from the focal process, and even though it's hard to study, many researchers have concluded we must study "choice strategy schema" as directly as we can. This realization is a recent one. I'm proposing only that a parallel logic points to the existence of "schemer schema," and to the possible benefits from studying their contents directly.

The Process by Which Schemer Schema Change and The Ways In Which They Change Are Both of Concern

In studying schemer schema, we will surely retain our basic interest in how such schema develop, how they're activated and used, and how they change. There's no obvious reason why the basic processes at work here will be different than those at work for any other type of schema. I'll return to this point in a moment.

However, it's alarming to realize that prevailing intuitive theories about persuasion or marketing tactics can change over time. It implies that the control mechanism underlying people's response strategies can change fundamentally. For example, what if people in general came to strongly believe, somehow, that the appearance of any imagery-evoking stimulus in a sales message signaled an attempt at mind control, and became very sophisticated at recognizing such stimuli vivid concrete language, stories, imagery requests, whatever. The relationships we had thought we'd documented between such stimuli and persuasive impact could well change, because the "targets" have uniformly changed their working control schemas. What if everything we as scientists learn about influence processes at a point in time were to be immediately transmitted to and understood by the general public. Kenneth Gergen posed this issue in an article called "Social Psychology as History". It's always bothered me. If targets and marketers were on perfectly equal grounds --- if both harbored the same working assumptions about influence processes --- the gamesplaying processes on both sides could change fundamentally. Or at least, enough so predictions we make from our theories are no longer accurate because we'd developed them from experiments on "uneducated" target subjects.

This implies another reason why it is prudent to document the contents of the schemer schema that prevail among the subjects we're studying now. And to study how response processes change when critical ideas in those schema are changed via education. If it turns out that changes in this control schema do cause changes in what we'd thought were dependable stimulus-response relationships, we'll have to keep up to date about prevailing schemer schema to make successful predictions about persuasive impact. That's what Gergen meant; we'll become behavioral historians.

Tentative hypotheses About Schemer Schema

I'd like to switch gears now and speculate a little about the way schemer schema develop and get used. As with other schema, the firsthand learning process must be fragile. People need a chance to observe firsthand that a particular message or promotion or pricing tactic causes a change in their own or someone else's personal preferences. That's a difficult inference to make. Awareness that changes in preference have occurred in one's own mind or in someone else's is probably quite limited. Discerning what aspect of an influence attempt caused such a change is probably difficult. We might then expect prevailing schemer schema based on personal inference to be simple and somewhat inaccurate.

Socially-supplied wisdom is readily available and may be influential. There's no shortage of popular books about "how I got so-and-so elected president" or "how I made a billion dollars in personal selling" or "how the mass media engage in wonderfully awesome mind-control." We teach a sizable fraction of all college students courses in "how to think effectively about marketing and advertising tactics." Some of them must succeed in integrating our teachings into their personal schemer schema. Has any of us, after teaching students about persuasion for 20 or 30 classes, ever tested whether they've become more insightful or complex in analyzing what they see marketers tossing at them as a target? Of course, compared to normative correct principles which we don't fully understand, what the books say and what we say in class is sometimes inaccurate.

The fact that people wear both hats --- aspiring advocate and target --- seems important and raises interesting issues. Practice in systematically thinking about how to influence other people, followed by careful attention to whether or not your tactic seemed to work, may greatly influence the development of a semi-sophisticated schemer schema. I've found that as long as someone envisions consumers solely as lifelong targets, they express doubt that consumers really harbor or use schemer schema. But if I define the consumer as someone who often spends time devising tactics to influence others, by occupation (say, a small businessman or executive or politician or educator or lawyer or...) or from self-interest or whatever, it seems a lot more plausible. Indeed, we might expect that people who study ant dwell on practicing influence have fundamentally different schemer schemas than less Machiavellian people.

But, is there difficulty in the transfer? Does a schemer schema developed from the "marketer's" vantage point automatically function as a useful schema when you become a target? Probably not. The shift of perspective may defeat the transfer to some degree. Questions about the contents of the same person's "marketer" and "target" schema and the way these two correspond or differ seem very intriguing.

I'd think that people must have difficulty activating their schemer schema in some situations where they face an advertising or promotional or pricing maneuver. Think back to my "motorcycle" example. To respond to a message about a motorcycle, I must in theory activate both my "schemer schema" and my "motorcycle" schema and still decode the message and produce responses. So, response opportunity looms large. Activating a schemer schema may become highly automatized. Or, sometimes I may just ignore any situational analysis from my schemer schema and take an incoming message as if there's no gaming at work. That is, my default assumption when my schemer schema fails me is "no scheming." Other times, my schemer schema may suggest scheming but I haven't an opportunity to respond at all beyond a vague "ignore it" or "accept it." So there'd probably be some simplistic heuristics.

If I were an enthusiastic fan of self attribution theories, I'd speculate that people sometimes use a tortured "backwards" reasoning process. It would run like this: "that ploy has ingredients that make it effective, according to my schemer schema. Since my assumption tells me it's convincing, I must feel convinced. So, I give in...I'll hold the advocated attitude about that product." Maybe this isn't all that tortured, in situations where people have no true attitude to begin with.

Can I be more exact about the sorts of ideas we'd find in a well-developed schemer schema? This shouldn't be too surprising. There'd be a "message appeals" subschema intuitive ideas about the effects of or reasons for presence of anxiety-arousing material or humor or case histories in a seller's message. A "message format" subschema, that includes insights about the way sequencings or visual displays of evidence affect judgments. A "framing" subschema --- this I find very intriguing --- for interpreting whether an explicit framing of a judgment is potentially biasing, and if so, whether it was intentional or coincidental. As part of this there might be a "secrecy" subschema, for judging why what's left out of a message was left out. Budget, time, or space constraints? Hiding something? Taking for granted that I'll already know about that? Of course, there'd be a "communicator" subschema --- why is this person describing those characteristics of herself? Why was she chosen to deliver this message to me? A "pricing/promotion" subschema: Why is this product being offered at this reduced price? Pride in what I'll discover about it? Dumping it because its going off the market? A signal of a low cost structure? An intent to survive by driving rivals from the market? A "bargaining" subschema: To interpret future offers based on current offers. In essence, a well-developed schemer schema could include all sorts of ideas relevant in interpreting and adjusting to the other player's tactics. And it would include some simple heuristics.

We've often theorized informally about some of these beliefs, treating them as mediators rather than as a key dependent variable. If we were to study such schema directly, we'd more often make them the primary dependent variables. For example, we'd pose and test theories about the way secrecy assessments are made, or the way people judge if a framing strategy is being attempted, or the way communicator credibility is judged.


What I've tried to do is excite interest in a topic we've neglected, which seems important and intriguing and uniquely a "consumer behavior" topic. What I know about influence processes tells me that what I've said won't send everybody scurrying out to study schemer schema.

Unless, of course, I've been devilishly clever in presenting myself and my viewpoint. Did I say anything at the outset to disarm you or heighten my credibility? Did I attempt humor? Or to arouse moderate anxiety about missed opportunities? Why did I discuss certain issues and leave others out? Was that a framing ploy on my part? Or a lack of time or imagination? Why did I just now disparage my probable success in piqueing your interest? To invite you to counterargue? Did you sense that a purposeful attempt to mind-screw you was underway? No? Do you think you'd be consciously aware of your schemer schema in action, if indeed it has been?

Like many other "veteran" researchers, I feel the field of consumer behavior needs a shot of excitement. A challenging ant intriguing ant novel and seemingly pertinent research question. Maybe studying schemer schema is an activity whose time has come. A decade from now, we'll know.



Peter Wright, Stanford University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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