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When our decisions are based on social norms rather than our preferences


When our decisions are based on social norms rather than our preferences

By Krishna Savani

We make many decisions daily, ranging from minor ones, such as buying shoes, to major decisions, such as picking a school to send our children to. Although it might appear that our personal preferences drive our choices, in reality, people often choose options that they do not necessarily prefer the most. Why? Our study asks: Can socio-cultural concerns, such as social norms, loom larger than one’s own preferences, leading people to makes choices that are inconsistent with their own preferences?

The answer to this question can have huge implications for marketers looking to sway the consumer dollar. Currently, most marketing strategies focus on the product and its direct appeal. Our research suggests that marketing strategies should target something else: the power of social norms to shift consumers’ preferences.

My team and I conducted several experiments to trace the consumer decision making process - starting from initial stated preference to actual final choice - using a simple three-step process. In the first step, participants expressed their preferences for different consumer products. Then, we varied the salience of social norms. Finally, they completed the cycle by making choices.

Our aim was to assess if by varying the normative conditions at the intermediary process, would the participant still make the final choice that is consistent with their first stated preference? Simply stated, how powerful are normative conditions in shaping final consumer decisions?

Using previous research, which found that Asians’ perceptions are more influenced by concerns about what others would think of them than those of Americans, we picked two communities for our studies – Indians and Americans.

In one experiment, one group of participants was exposed to subtle social cues. When making choices, some participants were presented with smiling eyes and frowning eyes, whereas others were only presented with text without any images. These “eyes of the other” had the effect of making this group feel as if they were being watched by others, thus activating general concerns about how others would judge their behaviour. We then assessed the impact of this experimental manipulation on their preference-to-choice consistency, versus the control group that was not exposed to the social cues.

In a second experiment, in which participants had to choose from among 40 pairs of shoes, we manipulated the normative content by asking participants to first type out a 100-word paragraph, proclaiming that either a norm of making choices primarily based on one’s preferences, or a norm of making choices which took into account social factors.

In both experiments, Indian participants were more affected than American participants by the norm manipulation. In the presence of eyes, after learning that the social norm is to take others’ wishes into consideration, Indians’ choices were more inconsistent with their initial stated preferences.

In our final experiment, participants first indicated their preferences for 40 pairs of shoes and then completed a simple value survey. Next, we told some participants that ‘‘Your value profile is very similar to the value profile of most Americans (Indians),” whereas others were told that their value profile is very dissimilar from the profile of most people from their country. Then participants were asked to choose among pairs of shoes.

We found that when Indian participants were told their values were very similar to the norm in their culture, they tried to move away from the cultural norm to increase the distance between themselves and their peers. Now, Indians chose shoes that they liked, consistent with their preferences. Yet when told their values were very different from their peers’, they tried to move closer to the social norm, this time being further less likely to choose according to their preferences. In contrast, Americans’ final choices were unaffected by this norm manipulation. This final experiment provides additional support that Indians are more likely to be affected by the normative effects of their environment.

Our research shows that there is a marked difference between how Indian and American people make decisions. Asian consumers do not always choose according to their own individual preferences, but often in response to what society expects of them, what other consumers are buying, and if others will positively evaluate their choice.

Effective marketing strategies for Asian markets thus need to go beyond focusing only on the product to include more socially suggestive messages, such as “This is what most other Hong Kongers are choosing”, “Your colleagues will envy you if you buy this bag”, or “80% of smart consumers already choose this brand of vitamins.”

The government could similarly harness the force of this social power when rolling out a new social benefit or policy they think might be unpopular with certain segments of the population. This is especially useful in a country in which people are likely to pre-judge new policies or programmes as being drafted under instructions from Beijing, thus exhibiting antipathy rather than engaging in rational analysis. One strategy could be to provide evidence that a similar policy has already been successfully rolled out in a well-respected “free” country, well accepted by its populace, and its benefits to the population have been well-documented. External social validation can be a powerful ally in the minds of Asian consumers.

The same forces can also be harnessed to reduce negative social behaviour, such as eating on the MTR, abusing domestic help, or making xenophobic comments against Mainlanders - by highlighting that others are watching and will judge individuals’ behaviour unfavourably. In an example striking at the heart and stomachs of many Hong Kongers, Air China and Cathay Pacific joined the ban on carrying shipments of shark’s fin, possibly the favourite delicacy among Chinese worldwide. In making this ethical decision, the two airlines were no doubt supported and validated by similar earlier decisions by over 30 airlines, including British Airways, American Airlines and Emirates.

This understanding of the power of social opinion can also be applied to corporations. For example, when implementing a new medical system or a new operating system requires significant adjustments on the part of employees, and many might be disgruntled and unhappy. The management can appeal to the sense of collective opinion – emphasising that most others at the workplace approve of the new plan to shift the general opinion, or tout that a highly regarded international MNC has already embarked on this same system as a form of extended social validation.

These strategies will only work in Asian countries where people are particularly concerned about what others are doing and how others would view them. The same strategy may not work for the consumers in the States, as our research has shown that they are less likely swayed by social norms. Marketers, management, and governments need to understand the different market segmentation, and adapt their communication strategies accordingly.

In essence, our research shows that beyond rolling out just content, influencers in Asia need to extend their effort to shaping the social space around a product or policy, which will have a significant influence on consumers’ choices and decisions.

About the author

Krishna Savani is an Associate Professor of Strategy, Management, and Organisation at Nanyang Business School, NTU. Team members in this research include Monica Wadhwa of INSEAD, Yukiko Uchida of Kyoto University, Yu Ding of the National University of Singapore (currently at Columbia University), and N. V. R. Naidu of M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bangalore.

This commentary was published in The Straits Times on 2​8 February 2017​​ and The New Paper on 27 February 2017​.

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