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David Wooten
  David Wooten

Easily Influenced Consumers Play It Safe When Making Purchases

12/2/2004 --

Consumers' product preferences are affected by the degree of their susceptibility to others' expectations and their need to avoid social disapproval.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Consumers who are greatly influenced by other people's opinions tend to be cautious when deciding on what products to buy, says a University of Michigan business professor.

New research by marketing professors David Wooten of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business and Americus Reed of the Wharton School shows that influenceable buyers do not seek to enhance their self-image by being flashy trendsetters. Instead, they try to protect themselves against social disapproval by avoiding choices that may make them look bad or attract unwanted attention.

"Contrary to popular perceptions, easily influenced consumers are more concerned about looking bad than looking good," said Wooten, whose findings appear in this month's issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. "For these individuals, conformity is a protective strategy that enables them to avoid undesired, contestable, or even noticeable impressions."

To determine how individual differences affect the perception and purchase of brands and products, Wooten and Reed conducted two studies focusing on consumers' susceptibility to normative influence, or SNI.

They define SNI as the need to identify with others or to enhance one's image with products and brands, or the willingness to conform to others' expectations regarding purchase decisions. Individuals with high SNI have a desire to fit in and gain social acceptance, while those with a low SNI are less concerned with others' perceptions of them and do not feel as pressured to conform.

In their first study, the researchers asked participants to evaluate advertising claims associated with two product categories–mouthwash and soap. They found that high-SNI (influenceable) participants responded more strongly than low-SNI (not easily influenced) participants to protective messages emphasizing the avoidance of undesirable outcomes, such as bad breath and body odor, which are noticeable to others.

"High-SNI consumers are especially concerned about avoiding negative impressions in public settings, so self-protection is more important than self-enhancement," Wooten said. "They respond more favorably to protective messages than do their low-SNI counterparts, but only when the messages pertain to conspicuous benefits."

Wooten and Reed conducted a second study to examine how SNI influences individual tendencies to avoid impressions that may be contested or noticed. They found that as people become more easily influenced, they are less likely to present themselves in ways that would be challenged by others.

Highly influenceable individuals also show reluctance to exaggerate their self-images and portray themselves more favorably than others by denying negative traits or making positive claims about their attributes, they say.

"In sum, we find that consumers' product preferences are affected by the degree of their susceptibility to group influence and their need to protect themselves against the loss of social approval," Wooten said.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847