Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

What do personality traits tell us about consumer behavior?

Unlocking the Secrets of Consumer Behavior with Psychological Traits

This is a guest blog entry by Kyle Thomas, V.P. of Research at TipTap Lab and Ph.D. candidate, Psychology at Harvard University.

While researchers can determine, quite easily, consumer behaviors from self-report data, it is almost impossible to get reliable data on why they buy what they do. How then can we predict why consumers make the decisions they make? If we leverage psychometrics and personality psychology we can predict motives, but only if the reason for a decision can be linked to a psychological trait.

What are personality traits?
Recent advances in personality psychology can help us predict consumer motivationTraits are defined as enduring and stable patterns of behavior, attitudes, emotions, that vary between individuals. Traditionally, researchers were interested in understanding how individuals differ, and so they put a great deal of effort into discovering how to measure, map, and define personality traits. However, by the mid 1990’s, a consensus was reached about a universal structure of personality. Now almost all personality psychologists agree that the Big Five should be the common framework for personality.

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Researchers are now reconceptualizing what traits are and where they come from--with traits being understood as chronic motivators that drive their decision-making. For example, researchers have linked personality traits to diverse outcomes such as experiential buying tendenciespolitical orientation, natural language use, preference in pets, the state of one’s personal living space, and even more important life outcomes such as divorce, morbidity, and occupational attainment. Some recent data suggests that people who find themselves in disease-ridden environments tend to be less open and extraverted, presumably because this makes them less motivated to explore and interact with others (which reduces the chance they will become infected). In addition to the growing evidence of the predictive power of personality, Will Fleeson is trying to unify motivational and personality psychology with his Whole-trait Theory. The theory conceptualizes traits as having both descriptive and explanatory elements, with the explanatory element representing the motivational component. Consistent with this theory, Fleeson and McCabe report that goal pursuit accounted for a whopping 74% of the variance in extraversion. 

All of these advances offers a way to determine consumers’ motivations; think of personality traits as a back door to understanding motivations. Because personality traits and consumer behaviors can be measured accurately, understanding the relationships between the traits and behaviors allows a researcher to understand the motivations without having to ask people for this information. We believe that when a trait is correlated with a consumer behavior, it can be inferred that whatever motivation this trait is connected to is the motivation for that behavior.

For example, TipTap Lab has used these recent developments to develop an Image Selection Task, which can be used by anyone to measure a suite of traits related to consumer behavior. This allows people to understand customers’ true motivations, and figure out how to better tap into these motivations. This is all a result of understanding the psychology behind self-report data, and integrating that understanding with other areas of psychology to create methods that are capable of circumventing the potential problems that self-report data can present. This insight has the potential to revolutionize consumer research, as it offers the first method to get reliable and objective results for understanding why consumers do what they do, and their API was developed to give anyone access to tools that can assess this information. 

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we want to know what you spend your money on so we can learn about the motivations for specific purchases. To learn about what might be influencing what you spend your money on, Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take a few of our spending habits quizzes:

How materialistic are you? Find out by taking the Materialistic Values Scale.

Are you a compulsive buyer? Take the Compulsive Buying Scale and learn about your spending habits.

How hedonistic are you? Take the Hedonism Value Scale and learn if you chase pleasure to an unhealthy extreme.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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