Recently, a friend of mine was asked how tall he was. He quickly replied, Do you mean in person or online?
He was joking of course, but the joke is funny because we all know that people tend to, well… present themselves in the best possible light online. And it is not likely that my friend would have thought to make a joke if he were actually tall. A person who was entirely comfortable with his height would probably just have answered the question.
When we accentuate the positive (and ignore the negative) in ourselves, it’s called self-enhancement, and there are plenty of studies (and lifetimes of personal experience) that suggest that we all do it and probably have since the dawn of time. In fact, to claim that you never self-enhance would be blatant self-enhancement! An hour on Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild will also convince you that human beings didn’t invent self-enhancement. However, we do have uniquely sophisticated technology for self-enhancement — speech. Not surprisingly, then, when researchers examine what people talk about, they find a “self-enhancement bias” — people tend to talk about the things that make them look good. This especially true of people who have suffered a set-back, are feeling threatened somehow, or when they are in the mate-seeking mode.
People self-enhance in two primary ways. The first way we self-enhance is to talk up the good things we are and have done while leaving out the bad. We bias the information our friends hear about us toward the positive. The other way we self-enhance is to talk up the negatives associated with other people. We are all much more likely to tell the story about the time our friend cut a guy off in traffic than about the time we did.
One of the things we love to talk about is what we have bought. One of the primary reasons we like talking about what we bought is that doing so is a self-enhancement, status producing activity. And as the popularity of consumer ratings sites like Yelp demonstrate, people value and trust what their peers have to say about their consumer experiences. This led researchers Matteo De Angelis and colleagues to wonder if all this self-enhancement might result in consumers receiving a skewed view of the world from their friends and fellow consumers. In other words, does the bias toward reporting mostly our good decisions and experiences warp what people learn about consumer products and experiences via word-of-mouth?
To find out, Matteo De Angelis and colleagues conducted a series of experiments. In their experiments, the researchers created a condition in which some participants would feel the need to self-enhance more than others. They did this by having the participants (college students) recall and write about a class in which they had done poorly. This technique had been pre-tested, and it was found that after writing about doing poorly, people suffered a temporary drop in their opinion of themselves. Next, participants were asked to talk to a confederate (someone on the researcher’s team) about a recent consumer experience — either their own experience or one they had heard about. The conversations were recorded and afterward transcribed and coded. What the researchers found was that participants whose confidence had temporarily been shaken were much more likely to talk about themselves than were the others, and also more likely to recall a positive rather than negative experience — but only if they were talking about their own experience. Those who did recall someone else’s experience were much more likely to recall a negative one. In other words, when people felt a need self-enhance they did so by telling positive stories about themselves and negative stories about others.
So, I have a confession. I hate chopping vegetables. After I saw the Slap Chop on TV, I bought one. I got it home, pulled it out of the box, grabbed an onion and started in slapping. But of chopping there was none! It chopped precisely nothing before it disintegrated into shards of cheap plastic and twisted metal, heaving large chunks of onion onto the floor. There. I said it. I’ve been holding that one back. If the subject had come up, I might have mentioned that a friend bought one and that it sucked. It never came up. Those ads ran for a long time. I know lots of other people must have bought them, including some of my friends. But I don’t recall anyone mentioning it. I suspect that others had a bad veggie chopping experience but didn’t want to admit they’d been scammed by the ShamWow guy, too.
And that’s the point. We tend to model our behavior after people we know, and this extends to the realm of consumer decision-making. We trust our peers’ (even if they are just Yelp peers) recommendations, and tend to spend money on the same things our friends do. However, it seems that we get only a skewed view of other consumers’ experience. We are probably not hearing about the fails or even the so-so’s at the rate they occur in real life. According to this research, this bias may be resulting in unnecessarily poor consumer decisions.
Next time, I will describe an arena in which the self-enhancement bias is likely an even stronger and potentially much more harmful economic force.
This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham. Follow @kerryfc
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The article referenced above is: Angelis, M. D., Bonezzi, A., Peluso, A. M., Rucker, D. D., & Costabile, M. (2012). On Braggarts and Gossips: A Self-Enhancement Account of Word-of-Mouth Generation and Transmission. Journal of Marketing Research, 49(4), 551–563.