The Automatic Mind

Exploring the World of Implicit Cognition

Are Mac Owners Really Cooler Than PC Users?

What you decide to purchase says much more about you than you think.

The iconic series of television commercials pitting personifications of Macs and PCs against each other imprinted in the public mind the image of Apple as a company for young, cool, hipsters. By contrast, the PC persona was embodied by a traditional, straight-laced, fuddy-duddy. Microsoft later counterpunched with commercials representing PC users as creative and spontaneous.

Marketers seek to position brands with appealing attributes, hoping that consumers will select these brands to feel better about themselves merely by association. A recent series of commercials for Samsung turned the tables on Apple by parodying the social phenomenon of waiting in line to buy the latest iPhone. While a group of young people wait expectantly for the doors to open, a young man on the line is joined by his parents, thus casting Apple in the unfamiliar role of being out of step with a younger demographic.

Efforts to understand the underlying motives that attract consumers to particular brands began in the 1940s as motivational researchers turned to psychological theorists and sociological analysis of social class distinctions, all to better understand consumer behavior. These early efforts were chronicled by Vance Packard in his landmark 1957 book, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard argued that many consumers are influenced and manipulated “far more than we realize” by persuaders seeking to exploit hidden motives and desires. He quoted early motivational researcher Ernst Dichter who famously remarked that marketers of women's shoes shouldn't focus on selling shoes, but rather, "lovely feet."

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Although some purchase decisions are guided by a clear-headed evaluation of product features and costs, others are influenced to varying degrees by subtle cues that appeal to the subconscious mind and trigger automatic associations we are only beginning to understand. Armed with more sophisticated means of probing these automatic associations marketing researchers today can plumb the depths of consumers' subconscious minds.

Research on automatic processing suggests that while we are conscious beings, we are not consciously aware of everything we do or the reasons we buy what we buy. Why, after all, do millions of iPads and iPhones fly off the shelves in the first few weeks after their release, even as less-expensive devices perform essentially the same functions? Are our purchase decisions driven more by marketers pressing our unconscious buttons than by the inherent value of the products themselves?

Who Believes Macs Are Cooler?

In our lab, we tested whether Mac and PC owners implicitly identified more with the brand of the computer they owned than with the competing brand. We also examined personality differences between Mac users and PC owners.

Our sample consisted of 108 undergraduates at St. John's University in New York who had purchased either a PC (Thinkpad) or a Mac laptop computer upon arrival at the college, as a part of a laptop distribution program. We tested implicit identification using the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—a widely-used measure of automatic associations. It measures differences in reaction times to particular stimuli (for example, reaction times to images of Macs and PCs) when these stimuli are paired with either positive or negative evaluative categories or self or other categories. We also tested differences between responses to Macs and PCs on the traits that comprise the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality—extraversion, agreeableness (friendliness), neuroticism (emotional stability), openness to new experiences, and conscientiousness.

As reported in a recent issue of Psychology & Marketing, we found no distinguishable differences in personality traits between PC and Mac owners. However, we did discover an "I'm a Mac" effect: Mac owners implicitly identified more strongly with Macs than with PCs and showed more positive implicit preferences for Macs. It also turned out that PC owners implicitly identified more with Macs, but to a much lesser extent.

The coolness and hipness of Macs, then, appears to have permeated the psyches of both Mac and PC owners. Although PC owners did not implicitly identify with PCs, though, they rated their devices higher than Macs on factors such as reliability, good features, and ease of use.

Apparently you don't have to identify with a consumer product to find it useful.

Many factors contribute to our purchase decisions, including price, reviews, and perceived usefulness. But some product choices may be influenced by subtle cues that evoke youthful appeal or other desirable characteristics, perhaps because of an underlying belief that these attributes will "rub off" on us, making us seem cool, hip, or attractive. It is possible that automatic processing may be a stronger influence than evaluative processing in impulse-buying situations—when we make quick or pressured decisions based more on gut level reaction than careful analysis.

The study of automatic processes is still in its infancy. These techniques open a window for exploring consumer attitudes at a deeper level than is possible with more direct means of questioning. With implicit techniques, we can measure just how much we are influenced by subtle cues in advertising. We can test how well the deodorant you use measures up on a measure of implicit freshness—or whether people automatically link qualities such as taste and healthfulness to foods served at particular restaurant chains. We might also pose questions about our own sense of self, such as whether we unconsciously identify with qualities associated with consumer products we use.

It may not be so much that "I'm a Mac," but rather, that "My Mac is me"—at least a cool, hip, idealized "me," the "me" that I'd like to be. 

Jeffrey Nevid, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Psychology at St. John's University.

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