What is my PhD thesis about?
My doctoral thesis looks at the phenomenon of self-signalling. A self-signal, simply put, is the self-information we get about ourselves from an action, behaviour, or choice. The cornerstone example of this is an experiment by Quattrone and Tversky (1984). They suggested that an individual is motivated to act in a way that signals his or her underlying characteristics to him or herself, even when the behaviour has no, or very little, impact on the actual characteristic. Quattrone and Tversky’s experiment involved first having participants keep their hand in a container of super cold water, timed until they couldn’t handle the pain anymore. One group of participants were told that high tolerance for cold water was linked to a certain inborn heart condition leading to higher chance of early death, while the other half of participants were told that low tolerance for cold water was linked to the risky heart condition. After learning about the connection with heart health followed by one minute on a treadmill they repeated the cold water test. Surprise, surprise! Most participants “tolerance” for the cold water increased in the direction of the good news; those who were tolerance for cold water was indicative of good heart condition held significantly longer than those told the opposite. This kind of behaviour is evidence of what some scholars term a diagnostic motivation.
Because I research in consumer behaviour, analysis in limited in my research to consumer choice (rather than actions or behaviours outside of consumer contexts). Making a consumer choice not only involves gaining a good or service with value to the customer, but self-signalling suggests the choice also implies characteristics about you (ex., I chose the apple over the chocolate bar, this implies I care about being healthy) and there is a value attached to that information. These self-signals from choice are either positive or negative – and these feelings impact how satisfied you feel about the choice and how much you are willing to pay.
That’s cool, but someone else already figured this all out (See Dhar & Wertenbroch, 2012; Prelec & Bodner, 2003a,b; Benabou & Tirole, 2004; 2006, etc.). But what’s missing (among other things) is the answer to the question why. Why do self-signals impact choice satisfaction? When does it happen? How? Does it work the same for each consumer? Does it happen in every choice context?
What did I actually do?
So, we set about to answer this by figuring out the psychological mechanism that can explain self-signalling. We figured out that psychological constructs related to one’s self-concept seemed to explain what was going on. People who knew themselves in a clear and stable way were much less likely to be influenced by either a positive or negative self-signal. It also was related to how aligned the self-information was with one’s self-concept (for all you psychology buffs – the role played by cognitive dissonance when the choice that reflects you doesn’t match how you feel you actually are).
We tested this all out using ethical consumption (including green consumption and organic products). Previous research found that people assume there is a trade-off when you buy an ethical product over a standard one – you usually take a hit on product quality but your choice is better in terms of environmental ethics. We put this perceived trade-off to work: our studies ask participants to choose between different options; the choice of either ethical/organic/green vs standard implied clear positive and negative self-signals respectively. If it sounds wacky, don’t worry – we tested it a gazillion times in a number of ways: online surveys, field studies in a grocery store, with images, with descriptions… yep, this effect is real!
Okay cool so that’s one paper down. My thesis has three papers. The second paper is a conceptual integration of this new-fangled self-signalling perspective with signalling theory from economics. Long story made short, I created some propositions (research questions) that could fill in the colour and depth of self-signalling by looking at how signalling theory deals with some of its assumptions. I answer some of the questions I derived in my thesis (fancy!).
The third paper is really cool because it had a huge plot twist. I was looking at signal strength – so, I kind of assumed that weak self-signals would impact satisfaction a weak amount, medium self-signals would impact satisfaction a medium amount, and strong self-signals… well, you get the point. BUT NO!! We found that it works differently for positive self-signals and negative self-signals. Positive self-signals at different signal strengths all significantly impacted satisfaction. Negative self-signals were another story. Basically, if the negative self-signal was super weak, people just ignored it. If it was medium strength, people felt bad. BUT if it was really strong, people just ignored it again! What the deal? I dug into the psychology literature to explain why this might happen. Self-deception is one of my favourite themes so this was very exciting.
Why do we care?
There are loads of theoretical contributions for the field of consumer psychology in my little thesis. We proposed and found empirical evidence for a psychological mechanism – so we now understand happens with self-signalling in consumer choice. We found some cool boundary conditions related to signal strength and valence. We also proposed a ton of promising future research avenues thanks to borrowing some wisdom from signalling theory. And we took stalk of the complete existent literature of self-signalling.
We also contributed to the understanding of ethical consumption! Previous research tended to focus on consumers buying ethical or green or organic to signal to other people that they were ethical. We now know that how consumers feel about buying ethical is impacted by self-signalling – their self-reputation. Lots of ethical products are consumed in private (ex., green toiletries, organic food), in the absence of external audiences that one’s self-image motives might normally be concerned with satisfying. This is pretty cool because managers can use this information to formulate their displays. For example, if you want people who buy ethical to feel really good about their choice, put a standard product right nearby. This enhances the positive self-signal and will likely boost their choice satisfaction and willingness to pay. Maybe this will help us encourage consumers to go green and adopt sustainable innovations. Plus with the rise of online shopping, marketers need to know what’s going to drive consumer choice in these increasingly popular contexts. Cool.
A little more detail for my fellow nerds.
What is self-signalling? A definition.
Self-signalling is the process through which individuals act or make choices in a way where they can observe, infer, learn, or reconfirm their own traits and self-identity.
It all started with Homo Economicus. Homo Economicus is the rational being, what the Economist assume a hypothetical person would do in their models and hypotheses. Traditional perspectives in Economics assume that humans have the ability to make rational decisions and maximize utility. More recent perspectives have acknowledged that humans aren’t the perfect creatures Economist paint us to be (don’t feel bad…) and fields such as behavioural economics and consumer psychology have emerged to take a crack at figuring out what really drives and explains the economic actor.
More recent research has uncovered that there is more to it: there is ego-utility in choice. But why would people care what their choices have to say about them? Theorists argue that the contents of one’s self-concept are opaque (we don’t fully know who we are and we are motivated to find out). Based on the assumptions of self-perception theory, people formulate an attitude towards themselves based on observing their own actions and inferring self-meaning from their observation of self. Self-signalling espouses that there is value to this self-information. This self-information can be derived from consumer choice. But how does it work? Without looking deeper at the questions surrounding how, when, and why self-signalling impacts consumer choice, we lack a clear understanding of the reasons why ego-value can make a difference in consumer choice behaviour, as well as how and why people make choices in the absence of external audiences, and overall how this conceptually fits into consumer choice.
Thanks for your interest! If you want more detail or have any questions, feel free to contact me. Upon acceptance per the Viva Voce examination, all theses from UK universities are made open access, in case you’d prefer to read the whole thing!