Identity-Based Perceptions of Others’ Consumption Choices

Peer reviewed: 
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Final version published as: 

Olson, Jenny G., Brent McFerran, Andrea C. Morales, and Darren W. Dahl (in press), "Identity-Based Perceptions of Others' Consumption Choices," in Mark Forehand and Americus Reed II (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Identity Theory in Marketing. Edward Elgar publishing.

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Socio-economic status

In this chapter we argue that studying “identity” means moving beyond the “self.” Consumers exist in a social context, meaning that the choices they make (a) reinforce their own identities and (b) provide information about who they are to other people. For example, someone (an “actor”) might choose to buy organic produce; someone else (an “observer”) may perceive this individual as an environmentally-conscious Millennial with higher disposable income. Importantly, observers may use an actor’s perceived identities to judge the “appropriateness” of a given purchase. We illustrate these points by focusing on income identity (e.g., socioeconomic status) and ethical consumption choices (i.e., choices that are prosocial but costly). Across several experiments, we find that low-income consumers receiving government assistance (“welfare recipients”) are seen as less moral when they choose ethical products, such as organic food and eco-friendly vehicles. This occurs in part because people expect those who are poor to be frugal. Conversely, wealthier consumers are seen as more moral for the same choices, in part, because of a belief they have earned spending freedom. We also find that these judgments extend to non-financial choices like volunteering time. This chapter is important because it highlights that who we are impacts perceptions of what we do, which may have consequences for our relationships with other consumers, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. For example, identity-based cues may influence hiring practices (e.g., poor actors are seen as less employable than wealthy actors), government policies (e.g., some people may be seen as more “deserving” of aid than others), and the ability to solicit donations (e.g., people donate less to a charity providing “organic food” vs. “conventional food” to aid recipients). We hope our chapter inspires additional research activity into understanding how observer-based identity judgments influence consumer well-being and marketplace experiences.

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Book chapter
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