Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 280
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Purchasing and Self-Identity

New research reveals important connections between purchasing behavior and managing oneís self-identity.

When a person makes a purchase, especially for an important item like a car or house, a dress or a suit, salespeople often observe a few silent moments before the purchase decision is made. The customer is thinking hard about something, and if the salesperson knew what was on the customerís mind, he/she could speak to this thinking with a goal of gaining a purchase decision.

Master salespeople who train novices or write books for them, claim to know what is going through the minds of customers. They say the customer is mentally trying on the new item to see if it fits. That is, to see if it fits in with their self-identity, their image of who they are or who they would like to become.

Consider, for example, middle aged men who sometimes visit new-car showrooms and examine the sports cars. Master salespeople who observe this, tell us these men are only quiet on the outside. In their imaginations, they are speeding around town, and they are trying to sense if they would feel younger and more energetic, more hopeful, with fewer aches and pains, if they owned these cars. It is the feelings they are trying on, and if the car fits, they might just make a purchase.

Is this explanation true? Do customers mentally try on items before they buy them? Aaron Ahuvia from the University of Michigan recently completed a study which helps answer these questions.

Ahuvia conducted 70 phone interviews and 10 follow-up, in-depth interviews with customers. The in-depth interviews lasted two to five hours each. Aluvia explored five topics: 1) life history, 2) things people love, 3) their history with these loved items, 4) people that they love, and 5) objects they felt neutral about. Ahuviaís goal was exploratory. He wanted to learn how acquiring and possessing items fit in with the process of forming and maintaining an identity. Following are his major findings.

People have a strong need to maintain their identities, and they accomplish this by displaying it to others and then noticing the reactions of others. For example, people whose self-identity includes acquiring wealth through their own industry might purchase expensive items that display this feature of their identity to others. Driving a Cadillac through the old neighborhood and being recognized by former neighbors is an example of such a personís self-identity maintenance.

Aluvia believes that personal identities are best understood as a story: People come from somewhere, they encounter obstacles and conflicts, and they move toward a particular future, a unique future that becomes an ideal for them. When purchasing fits into this life narrative, then it helps people advance this story, and thatís desirable. People want to advance their life stories, so purchasing which facilitates this process is significant and helpful.

Purchases may help resolve identity conflicts. Imagine, for example, a young woman living in a high-rise in Chicago, but suppose she grew up on a ranch in Nebraska. Art works, wall hangings, and other memorabilia that vividly displays the rural Nebraska life style would find a welcome place in her apartment, and living with these objects and images would help her feel at home in her Chicago high-rise. With these purchases, she creates a solution, a resolution to the identity conflict of a farm girl in the big city.

Purchases may also help close chapters in a personís life narrative and open new ones. Imagine, for example, another young woman who decides to give up the life of an investment banker and become an artist. All of the purchases that help her implement this decision have identity maintenance value in that they confirm this change in her life direction. Imaginative fashion purchases that would be quite unsuitable for an investment banker will serve to help her transform her identity from what she was into what she wants to become.

When purchasing involves transforming the self into a desired identity, there is often an element of distrust in oneís own judgment or taste. For example, a young woman may want to dress stylishly but distrust her own taste. She might imagine the preferences of another person whose taste and judgment she feels are superior to her own, and a sales clerk could be that person.

Purchases can extend the self, becoming literally a part of a personís identity. A tool can enable a person to perform tasks that he/she otherwise could not perform. For example, a well-equipped kitchen can enable a person to become a cook. A chain saw can enable a person to become a woodsman. A fishing boat enables a person to become a sport fisherman. A private plane enables a person to become a pilot.

Professor Ahuviaís research reminds us of the intensely personal nature of much purchasing. Purchases often do have important personal meanings as people wrestle with their self-identity needs. Identities need to be expressed and transformed, and salespeople stand in a crucial position to facilitate this process. Those who do a good job of it are likely to exceed their sales goals.

Reference: Ahuvia, Aaron (2005) Beyond the Extended Self: Loved Objects and Consumersí Identity Narratives. Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (June), 171-185.

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