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Friday, April 13, 2012

Buying your way back in

It bothers me how easily humans can be manipulated without them consciously realizing it.  I feel this way every time I read a new study on human behavior.  Recently, I read a paper on how people (acting as consumers) react when they are socially excluded.

Here is the info on the study itself:

Social Exclusion Causes People to Spend and Consume Strategically in the Service of Affiliation
Author(s): Nicole L. Mead, Roy F. Baumeister, Tyler F. Stillman, Catherine D. Rawn, Kathleen D. Vohs
Source: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 37, No. 5 (February 2011), pp. 902-919.

The authors' primary research focus is to test the hypothesis that social exclusion causes people to spend and consume in ways that they believe will allow them to gain acceptance back into the group they were initially excluded from.  The authors tested this by running 4 different experiments.  The method of each experiment was to make the participants feel socially excluded and then observe how they would change their behavior as a result.  The authors believed that socially excluded individuals would use money and their consumption patterns as a means to an end, the end being inclusion back into the group that excluded them.  As the experiments showed, this is exactly what happened.  For instance, in the first experiment, certain participants were told that the person they were meeting did not want to meet them after they found out about them while the rest of the participants were told their meeting was cancelled because the other person had an emergency to attend to.  In essence, some participants were rejected and felt excluded while others were not since their meeting was cancelled for understandable reasons that had nothing to do with them.  These participants were then given money to go shopping at a laboratory store and they were also told they would meet someone new since the first person did not want to meet them.  The authors informed all the participants that the new person they were meeting was from a specific university.  At the laboratory store, among other things, there were specific school pride items such as wrist bands.  These wrist bands were from the university of the new person they were going to meet.  The socially excluded participants were much more likely to purchase these school pride items in hopes of forging a social bond with the new participant, even if they themselves never attended that specific university.  These individuals bought a product that was symbolic of a group membership in hopes of forging a bond with the new person they were going to meet.

In another experiment, specific participants were once again treated in a way that made them feel socially excluded.  They took a personality test and the result essentially told them that they are most likely going to end up alone in the future and their relationships are going to fail.  The experimenters tested if these individuals would be willing to consume an unappealing food item in hopes of gaining the favor of person they were about to meet.  The food item was chicken feet and the experimenters informed the participant that the individual they were about to meet considered this food item a delicacy.  The participants who were made to feel socially excluded were once again much more likely to select this item than the participants who were not given back negative test results that made them feel socially excluded (i.e., the "control group").  The socially excluded individuals were much more willing to spend money on an unappealing food item in hopes of gaining acceptance.

When taken together, all the experiments clearly showed that socially excluded individuals strategically adjust their spending and consumption patterns to gain favor with a specific individual or group.  People in such a state often sacrifice their own preferences and well-being in hopes of increasing their social appeal.  This finding is perhaps a no-brainer but it's still interesting to see the experimental data line up with what we think should logically happen.  You or I might have behaved in such a manner in the past (or we still do) without even realizing it. It's important to consciously take note of our behavioral changes so we don't end up sacrificing our own preferences and well-being for the sake of fitting in.  If you feel the need to change the way you are to fit in then the group you are trying to be a part of was never worth it to begin with.

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