As a social psychologist who became a consumer psychologist, I’ve long been fascinated by the social side of consumption and how other people affect consumer behavior and decision-making. When we think about the social side of consumption, there is, of course, the ubiquitous phenomenon of conspicuous consumption: Teenagers who spend all their pocket money on a certain brand of sneakers, or adults who “invest” in expensive handbags or sportscars to impress others around them.
Although such episodes are certainly entertaining, I’m interested in more subtle expressions of the same phenomenon. Whereas we can easily see through attempts to impress that rely on flaunting one’s expensive, luxury-brand purchases, subtler attempts to impress others are often more effective because they are less obvious. Think back to the last time you got an acknowledging glance from someone for an order or a purchase: Maybe you ordered a trendy cocktail, got tickets to the latest show, or had tried the city’s best pizza joint. These instances of consuming to impress will typically get more respect in the eyes of others because they rely not on shelling out vast sums of money for material purchases but on being in the know and having cultural savviness.
Indeed, it’s often the small consumer choices that we use to signal something about ourselves that determine the impression we make on others. Instead of buying an expensive car to signal wealth, smaller consumer choices about what to drink, eat, or watch seem like more innocent signals of our true preferences and character that are untainted by the desire to impress others.
Social influence on decision-making
Recent research from my colleagues Maferima Touré-Tillery, Blake DiCosola, and myself shows an example of how consumers use a snack that they chose to make a positive impression on others. In several experiments, we found that in situations where consumers worry that others might think negatively of them, they are more likely to choose healthy over indulgent snacks in order to counter the negative impression they anticipate.
One such situation is being in contact with a member from a different social group (e.g., a different company, a different college, etc.). Decades of research have shown that people prefer others (even strangers) from their own social group to those from a different social group and think negatively about the latter. Thus, when encountering a member of a different social group, consumers already anticipate such negative judgment. Because we don’t like feeling judged negatively by others, we try to correct such negative judgments. Here’s where the snack choice comes in. Healthy choices signal self-discipline and restraint, so when we feel judged negatively, we try to make healthy choices to counter the negative judgment by signaling these positive traits.
Public policy often tries to get consumers to make healthy choices by advertising the benefits of healthy food (e.g., an apple a day…). However, consumers are social animals. Just like teenagers who are motivated to buy certain sneakers for the admiring glances of other teenagers, consumers, in general, can be motivated to make healthy choices when they feel like others will think more positively about them. For those of us who struggle to eat our five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, maybe we should think about the additional social benefits of making healthy choices: Instead of buying a fancy handbag or car, simply eat to impress.