I’m always excited when science finally catches up with marketing.

M&MsA man walks into a sociologist’s office, and is asked to write a short essay highlighting his healthy life habits. He does so. Afterwards, he’s offered a choice of two small rewards for his work: an apple, or a pack of M&M’s. He makes his choice and leaves.

After that, another man walks into the sociologist’s office, and is asked to write a short essay highlighting his healthy life habits. As he’s about to begin, the sociologist asks him to write it with his non-dominant hand. After he does so, he is offered a choice between an apple or a pack of M&M’s.

This second man, who wrote with his non-dominant hand, is significantly more likely than the first to choose the apple. Why would that be?

A lot of excellent research is starting to emerge dealing with the relationship between “state” self-confidence (short term mental states) and purchasing habits. The study I’ve just referenced came out of Stanford last year. It was published in Advances in Consumer Research by Leilei Gao, S. Christian Wheeler, and Baba Shiv, and talks about the concept of the “shaken self.”

Simply speaking, our self-concept has many facets, or domains. A given person might believe, for example, that she has a certain acceptable level of intelligence, a certain above-average level of wit, and a certain exceptional level of conscientiousness. Now, if a situation were to introduce a threat to one of these beliefs, like being called “dim-witted”, then it temporarily shakes us up. It makes us want to do something (or acquire something) that restores our faith in that particular trait.

In this experiment, the key trigger has to do with writing with one’s non-dominant hand. The act of writing about one of your virtues with your non-dominant hand induces a temporary state of lower confidence in the trait you’re writing about. The test subjects who wrote with their non-dominant hand tended to choose rewards that would bolster their self-image with regard to the virtue they were writing about (e.g. they chose the healthier apple snack to re-establish their self-image as a person who makes healthy choices).

A related study was published soon after in Social Psychology and Personality Science. Nathan C. Pettit and Nire Sivanathan found some more interesting effects of this “shaken self” concept: 1) it sways people to consume with credit as opposed to cash (in order to avoid the pain of expending money), and 2) it influences people to buy high-status goods, often at a premium.

I’ve written at length of people’s innate and constant status games with one another. High status within a group is instinctively desirable in humans (really all pack animals). Overtly expensive or flashy goods show off to the world that you have the capacity to own them, much like a huge pair of antlers can only be carried by the strongest caribou.

Conspicuous Consumption

Conspicuous Consumption: The “Huge Antlers” of the Human Experience

None of this is shocking. We look around and see this behavior all the time. As a man, I can safely say that the midlife crisis phase of my gender is usually a self-bolstering sight-to-behold. We can all point to a moment (usually a recent moment) when we have bought something due to this urge.

Remember Mark Leary’s Sociometer Theory: the best way to understand the psyche is as a mechanism that reads social or situational feedback, and forces behavior modification to maximize one’s acceptance by others. The “shaken self” registers a sensation in the same center of the brain that recognizes physical pain, and promotes active corrective measures.

Any marketer or advertising professional reading this will roll their eyes at the simplicity of these conclusions. The entire profession of marketing is built on the idea of instilling desire, and deliberate insecurity is a very common tactic. Remember Don Draper’s Dictum: “Happiness is a sign screaming that whatever you’re doing is okay…that you are okay.”

Have you ever seen a commercial that was aimed at you, and portrayed in a way that made you subtly insecure? Of course you have. Maybe they showed people your age who are very beautiful. Maybe they showed successful, career-oriented ladder-climbers. Maybe they showed excellent parents whose perfect kids visibly adore them. It’d be harder to try and name a commercial that doesn’t make you feel subtly insecure. My favorite are the alcohol commercials like for Bacardi and Corona. They are aimed specifically at the people who don’t look like that.

Here are some thoughts to take away:

1) The Pettit – Sivanathan article implies that “shaken self” is the reason that people on a lower income tend to spend a proportionally larger amount of their earnings on high-status goods than do those with a higher income. The idea of having a comparatively low income – in their model – qualifies as a threat to the self-concept and something to try and compensate for.

2) Researchers found that if the test subjects who were “shaken” were offered a way to re-establish their self-concept before being offered the choice of rewards, the “shaken” effect did not show in the reward choice. It means you can get the feeling out of your system without necessarily acquiring anything. So marketers and advertisers will strive to make the “shaking” experience happen as close to the sale as possible, and smart buyers will strive to exit the situation so that they can pacify that urge in a benign way.

3) Incidentally, this is also how banter works. Ever notice that good, witty dialog is often peppered with zingers? The attraction of banter is the need to restore yourself in the eyes of the other by hitting back (in a fun way, of course). Watch movies that have good bantering dialog. See if you can notice when chemistry between two people evolves from one or both of them feeling “shaken,” and needing to re-establish themselves with relation to the other.

4) Look at the type and frequency of the goods you buy, and it will tell you what shakes you (which facets of your identity are most fragile). Mostly I’m talking about the things you buy that are in some way a reflection of you, but we make deliberate, identity-based choices in even the most mundane areas. Think about the power you could assume for yourself if you admitted, “This particular thing really gets to me, and now that I know that, I’m not going to let it screw with me anymore.”

5) Robert Cialdini‘s second Weapon of Influence (which is also his least well understood) is “Commitment and Consistency”. We will act in ways that are consistent with how we’ve acted in the past, because we long for a congruent identity. If I can get you to wear a cancer awareness ribbon for a week, you are more likely to donate money to the cause when asked, because you are now a cancer-fighter. The “shaken” syndrome is another way to instill this commitment. A person who becomes shaken by having their charitable credentials questioned will instinctively say to him/herself, “Of course I’m a cancer-fighter! What do I have to do to make me feel again like I am one?”

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  • Learn what makes a business fragile, so you can avoid pitfalls that sink most founders.
  • Discover how to set up your business to use setback and stressors as fuel for growth.
  • Build an unstoppable business that uses resistance to grow like muscle!