Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Conservatism and Product Purchase

The factors that affect political views also influence product purchase

When you meet new people, there are a few things you can find out about them that seem to say a lot about them.  The music people listen to, for example, seems to say a lot about their outlook on life.  Political affiliation is another big dimension.  In the US, knowing that someone is a Democrat or a Republication seems to tell you a lot about who they are.

Do people’s politics really say that much about who they are, though?  Certainly, political affiliation is related to people’s beliefs about social issues and the role of government in people’s lives.  But, does political affiliation predict other aspect of people’s behavior?

This question was addressed in a fascinating paper in the March, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Romana Khan, Kanishka Misra, and Vishal Singh.  These researchers explored the link between political conservatism and the purchase of ordinary products. 

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To examine this question, the researchers used scanner data.  Now that grocerty stores are computerized, they are able to keep track of every purchase that is made in the store.  That data is collected by companies that use the information for market analyses.  When stores use loyalty cards (or for that matter, when you pay with the same credit card over time), the stores are able to track individual purchases as well.

In this study, the researchers examined purchases of products from 26 common categories including toilet paper, toothpaste, and peanut butter.  They looked at data from 416 counties in the US.  The data were analyzed by the county level.  That is, the researchers were interested in differences in the purchases made by people in different counties, and how that differed based on a number of measures.

The researchers were interested in purchases of generic products and new products that were introduced into the market.  The idea is that if people exhibit conservative behavior in their daily purchases, they should buy established national brands of products rather than either generic products or new entries into the market. 

To measure conservatism, the researchers used two measures.  First, they looked at county-by-county differences in the percentage of votes for republication candidates in the Presidential elections from 1980-2008. In addition, the researchers used a measure of religiosity.  They drew data on levels of religious activity taken from data collected by the Association of Religion Data Archives.  The idea is that conservative ideology often reflects a combination of Republication voting behavior and religious affiliation.

The researchers used the statistical technique of regression analysis to determine how these measures of conservatism were related to purchases of generic products and new brands.  In these analyses, the researchers controlled for many other factors that influence purchases including income in the county, age of the population in that county, education level, and race/ethnicity.  So, any observed effects of conservatism go above-and-beyond these factors.

For both generics and new brands, both voting behavior and religious affiliation affected product purchases.  Both measures decreased the tendency to purchase these products.  That is, counties with higher levels of Republication voting and religious affiliation tended to purchase common name-brand products. 

Obviously, these data are averaged across a lot of people. The analyses just suggest that there is a tendency for areas that vote Republican and affiliate with religious organizations to shy away from purchases of generics and new products.  The data were not examined on an individual basis, so it is hard to know exactly which characteristics of people create this overall behavior.  Still, the results are intriguing.

Why would this happen?  There is evidence suggesting that conservative ideology is often taken on by people who find newness and change to be stressful.  For individuals who are anxious in  new situations, familiar products and brands are comforting.  So, the same factors that promote conservative political affiliation also seem to affect everyday purchases.

And that suggests you really can learn a lot about a person just by knowing how they vote. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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