25 January 2013

The Shortcomings of Marketing Based on “Who the Customer Is” and the Alternative

In recent posts on my blog I have described and discussed several personality traits and I will continue to do so in the near future. I guess, now it is time to discuss several shortcomings of relying on personality, especially from the perspective of marketing research and marketing execution (designing and implementing marketing actions).

I have to make a note: In this post I use the word “personality” with a broader meaning which includes everything that is intrinsically related to the individual and relatively stable. This includes aspects such as gender, age, beliefs etc.  

Let’s start with the deeply rooted belief that behavior is the outcome of personality only. This is called in scientific terms the fundamental misattribution effect and I have discussed it in “Are you a jerk?”. 

The established philosophy (in the sense of way of thinking) in marketing is that a company/ brand should get to know its target audience as good as possible. Then the company / brand should adapt itself and its products and services to “who the consumer is”. The better a company knows its target audience and the better it responds to its public’s needs is directly and causally linked to the success of the company.

In other words, getting to know “who the consumer is” means getting to know the personality of the consumer. (I use personality in the broad sense described at the beginning).  

Honestly, this is not wrong. In fact it is very good. It is hard (or virtually impossible in a free market) for a firm to make profits by selling things that the public does not want or that inadequately fit for the target audience’s needs. Take for example a shoe making company. It is virtually impossible to sell shoes that do not fit the feet of the people in the target audience. If this company wants to sell to basketball and rugby players it should better have “extreme” measures for the shoes it sells. Similarly if this company wants to sell men shoes in The Netherlands it should have shoes size 46-47 (European measures) or it will lose a significant part of the market. For the readers of this blog who are not familiar with men shoe sizes in Europe, usually measures larger than 45 are very rare in most European countries. However, the Dutch are the largest men and women in the world (on average).

The established philosophy in Marketing is to get to know “who your consumer is” and what are his or her values, attitudes and preferences. The first “line” of information that a marketer wants to get (or simply gets) from consumer research is demographic data. The second “line” is represented by psychographic data which, in a nutshell, measures the beliefs, values and attitudes of the target audience.

A consumer description goes something like this: “your target audience is 70% female and 30% male; they are aged between 40 and 55 years old; the average gross income per household is X0.000 Euros; they live mainly in urban areas; they have moderately conservative beliefs and values and they have above average scores on price conscientiousness.”

To make a long story short, the marketer gets a description of the “average consumer’s personality”. Or who the average consumer is.

The marketer who receives this information has the job (responsibility) to adapt the product or service, the distribution, the pricing and the marketing communication to the profile of the consumer. More or less, a marketer’s career is centered on these (meta) tasks.

Since I have entitled this post “shortcomings of personality” there are several questions that should be answered. Let’s take them one by one.

First, Is this information completely irrelevant? Of course not! Not knowing who you are targeting is the first step in “screwing it up”. The basics learned in “foundations of marketing” are not obsolete and most likely they will never be.  

Second, Is it wrong trying to adapt products, services, pricing, distribution and marketing communication to who the consumer is? Is it Useless? Of course not! Again, these are the basics of marketing. It’s impossible to sell your product if it is not sold in the shops where your “average consumer” goes shopping. You get the main idea, right?

Third, is it wrong to go beyond demographic information and into things like values, beliefs, way of life etc.? Again, the answer is NO. In largely globalized markets and with a population more diverse than ever, it is hard to rely only on demographic information. Without trying to be dramatic, the reality is that in the entire history the population has never been larger and neither has it ever been more diverse than it is now. This means that “who your consumer is” is significantly more complex than it used to be 100 years ago.

The legitimate question is now “if none of this is wrong, then what is the problem? Why do you say there are shortcomings”.  The answer is that IT IS NOT WORNG to get information on who the target audience is (personality), but IT IS SEVERELY INCOMPLETE. Let’s take a look at why is it so.

First, some of the assumptions on which “learning who the consumer is” is based are flawed. For example a lot of psychometric research focuses on preferences and the assumption is that preferences are stable. At the same time we know that it is not so. Some preferences are stable; other can change depending on context or on the mere choice set. Similarly for attitudes, the assumption is that they are strongly linked to personality, but it is not fully so. Attitudes can be influenced to various degrees.

Second, most of the “traits” that compose the profile of “who the consumer is” are assumed to be valid predictors of behavior (in the case of marketing, buying behavior). In fact these “traits” are predictors of behavior, after all people in market research are not idiots. However, things such as personality traits and attitudes are valid, but week predictors of behavior.

Third, Personality is not the only source of behavior; in fact it is the weakest source of behavior. To put this differently, who a person is influences that person’s behavior, but only to a reduced extent. Personality is not equal to behavior and behavior is not equal to personality. In the same line of thought, attitudes influence behavior, but attitudes are not the same thing as behavior and behavior is not the same thing as attitude.  

Fourth, a big problem with assessing personality, especially psychological aspects of personality is that all these traits follow the rule of “a normal distribution”. We know that people who score High on conscientiousness do this and that, while people who score low on this trait do exactly the opposite. It’s all very nice, but these conclusions are drawn from many studies that use statistical analysis to identify the slightest differences. In practice the above mentioned information is still relevant, but quite hard to use because most marketers don’t go to the extremes of a normal distribution.

Let me clarify the issue of a Normal distribution. Take a look at the picture below:

As you can see about 70% (68 to be more exact) of a population is more or less in the middle intervals of a normal distribution. For any personality trait (including IQ) it means that 70% of people (in a general population) score very close to the mean. In other words, 70% of people are neither high, nor low on a personality trait. Being slightly to the left or slightly to the right means that a person will sometimes (quite rare) do what people “low” or “high” on that trait do. For example if someone is a bit above average in need for uniqueness it means that that person will seldom buy personalized products, but more often than not they will not do so.

Looking at the same picture we see that “extremes” are composed out of only about 8% of the population (4% very low and 4% very high). Is this a viable target audience? Could be, but more likely it isn’t.

I guess you got the idea. Information on “who the consumer is” is not irrelevant. But quite often has a low level of usefulness in practice and a relatively low predictive value, especially in the case of non-niche products. And by niche I mean really narrow audience.  

Fifth, by focusing (mainly) on personality (who the consumer is), marketers limit their possibilities for action. An inherent characteristic of personality is that it is (roughly) stable. In other words, nobody can change the personality of another person. Focusing (mainly) on personality implies that the only changes that can be made are on the side of the company / brand. With the risk of repeating, adapting a product, offer etc. to the customers’ needs is good. However, there are more things that can be done.

A marketer’s job is to create behavioral change on the part of consumers. To put this differently, a marketer’s job is to influence the behavior of consumers. Some examples of behavioral change are: to buy more, to use more, to choose one product over another etc.

The most common approach in creating behavioral change is to adapt the firm’s offerings to the personality of the consumer. We know, however, that personality is not the only source of behavior and that it only offers a base-line for behavior. This means that trying to adapt one’s offering to the base-line of behavior will not do everything that can be done in creating behavioral change.

My belief is that using the other three sources of human behavior – Environment, Internal state and Social influences – will give considerably better results in creating behavioral change. This use of the other three dimensions of the 4D Model of Behavior can be two folded.

First, when doing market research marketers can take into account all four factors, not only personality. Understanding the influences that the other three sources have on behavior will lead to more opportunities for adapting brands and offerings not only to “who the consumer is” but also to the “context” of behavior.

Second, although personality can’t be changed, the other three dimensions can be controlled (or to be more honest manipulated). By controlling elements of the other three dimensions from the 4D Model of behavior, marketers will be more effective in creating behavioral change.

To conclude this post, focusing on “who the consumer is” is in no way wrong. However, it is dramatically incomplete. By extending the focus to other three sources of human behavior – Environment, Internal state and Social influences – new opportunities open for both better adaptation of the offer and creating behavioral change.

Don’t ignore personality! Look beyond it!

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You Need to Be Distinctive and to Belong - Need for Uniqueness

Every person has two apparently contradictory needs: (1) to fit in a social group and (2) to be distinctive and special. These needs are, in my view, deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. First, we need to be part of a social group, the evolutionary explanation being that as part of a group we have more chances of fulfilling the evolutionary macro-goals of survival and successful reproduction. I have addressed this issue in Doing What Others Do – SocialInfluences of Peers

Second, we need to be distinctive because we have to compete with others for limited resources and for social relationships such as attracting friends and potential mates. I have addressed this issue in Keep Up With the Others - Social Competition.  

The evolutionary explanation for these needs is not the only one. It is possible that we have these needs simply because we need to feel comfortable with ourselves. I personally prefer the evolutionary explanation.

As mentioned in the beginning the need to fit in a social group and the need to be distinctive are apparently in conflict one with another. Despite this, these two needs are not antagonistic, meaning that a compromise can be reached. The compromise result is that people have a need to feel themselves as moderately distinctive. Both extreme similarity and extreme dissimilarity to others are unpleasant and discomforting. Moreover, people who see themselves as moderately distinct from others experience general positive affect (good mood).

When we are made aware that we are similar to others, we tend to reaffirm our distinctiveness by conforming less, expressing less popular attitudes and placing more value on scarce experiences and messages.

In formal terms the need to be (feel) distinctive is called “need for uniqueness” and is a personality trait. Everybody has this need for uniqueness; however there are individual differences in the degree to which people feel this need. Psychology literature has identified two scales to measure need for uniqueness. In brief, the first scale developed was the Need For Uniqueness scale (NU). This scale focused mainly on manifestations of (somehow) risky public behavior. Since this measure was suboptimal, another scale was developed, namely the Self-attributed need for uniqueness (SANU).

For marketing the NU is relevant because it predicts consumers’ selection of observable products. The SANU is better at predicting the desire for scarce products, customized products and pursuing uniqueness through consumption.

Distinctiveness can be expressed through many means. Next the most relevant ways of “showing” uniqueness are presented.

First, people can express distinctiveness and at the same time satisfy the need of belonging to a social group by being (or identifying themselves as) part of a small somehow exclusive social group. I call this the “better minority” effect. In essence an individual likes to belong to a special small social group that s(he) perceives as being better than the majority or general population. The smaller the “better minority” the more its members identify themselves with the group and satisfy their need for uniqueness. Moreover, when people are made aware of their lack of distinctiveness they tend to identify themselves with “better minority” groups.

Second, people can express distinctiveness through consumption. For instance, people can show uniqueness by buying and possessing scarce products. In fact people with high scores on need for uniqueness (measured using the SANU scale) as compared with people with low scores on need for uniqueness tend to prefer more scarce (rare) products such as “limited edition” over common ones.   

Another way in which people can express distinctiveness through consumption is by favoring highly innovative products before others do. In other words, people who are high on need for uniqueness tend to adopt new and innovative products earlier than people with low need for uniqueness. To put things a bit differently, the early adopters of highly innovative products are people who have a high need to feel and show that they are different from the large majority.   

Remaining in the area of consumption, people can express distinctiveness through customization (personalization) of products. People who score high on need for uniqueness (measured using the SANU scale) show a higher preference for personalized and customized products than people who have low scores. To put things a bit differently, the entire industry of customizing mobile phones, clothes, cars etc. is driven by Need for uniqueness.

Another mean of showing uniqueness through consumption is the preference for less popular products. People with high levels of need for uniqueness prefer less popular brands, colors and products over their more popular alternatives. However, this effect is valid only for items that are visible suggesting that the preference for less popular products is used to show “public uniqueness” and not “private uniqueness”.  

I have devoted much attention to expressing uniqueness through consumption, but this does not mean that each and every person expresses uniqueness through these means. In fact many people express their distinctiveness through experiences. Let’s imagine a beer chat between two couples. One couple describes in detail the new mobile phone they bought and show them extensively. This couple expresses distinctiveness through consumption.  The other couple tells a story about their latest holiday in an exotic destination where they did scuba diving. This couple expresses distinctiveness through experiences.

For the ones interested more in expressing uniqueness through consumption, I recommend checking out the following two measures: “Desire for unique consumer products (DUCP)” and “Consumer need for uniqueness”.  They are considered to be more useful in applied marketing research that the general measures of need for uniqueness.

Before ending this post, I would like to remind you that each and every person has the two needs of feeling distinctive and at the same time belong to a social group. There are, however, personal differences in the extent to which we feel the need of being distinctive and this is called need for uniqueness and it can be measured. This need is “activated” when people are made aware of their lack of distinctiveness. Moreover, the need for uniqueness is manifested more when the information on lack of distinctiveness is consciously detected as opposed to unconscious detection.   

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This post is documented from: Lynn Michael, and Snyder C.R. “Uniqueness seeking” chapter 28 in Handbook of Positive Psychology (source)

23 January 2013

How Much Do You Like to Think – Need for Cognition

Need for Cognition is one personality trait that I see relevant for behavioral research and practice. It has been developed in the 1950s by Cohen, Stotland and Wolfe. The current theory on need for cognition used today was developed by Cacioppo and Petty in 1982 and it is a development of the early theory from the 1950s. But enough with history.

Need for cognition represents “the extent to which people engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activities”. (Source).

Being a personality trait implies that everyone has “need for cognition” and that each person scores differently on this trait. Taking a look at the extremes we will see that people with high need for cognition often engage in effortful thinking enjoying challenging tasks. Moreover, people with high need for cognition do so without any external motivation or incentives. At the other end of the continuum, people with low need for cognition try as much as possible to avoid elaborate thinking and need external motivations and incentives to engage in effortful cognitive endeavors.

To put things a bit differently, people with high need for cognition like intellectual stimulation more than people with low need for cognition. At the same time, people with high (as opposite to low) need for cognition tend to be more critical, in the sense that they may “think twice” about a certain issue.

As you may have noticed, there is a similarity between need for cognition and the dual-system theory of thinking. For more details on dual-system information processing please take a look at this post: A Bird and a Computerin the Brain (Two Systems of Thinking)

In short, people have two systems of processing information (thinking). The first one is fast, associative, effortless and is based on “rules of thumb” (heuristics). This system is the default way of thinking. The second system is slow, elaborate, computational and is based on (rational) reasoning. The second system can be activated and interacts with the first system.

Taking the dual-system perspective, it could be said that people with high need for cognition as compared with people with low need for cognition tend to use more often system 2 thinking. This is not to say that people with high need for cognition rely only or even mainly on system 2 thinking. For each and every human being system 1 is the default way of thinking and we all use it as the main information processor. People with high need for cognition simply “switch on” system 2 more often than people with low need for cognition.

The fact that people with high need for cognition “switch on” system 2 reasoning does not make them perfectly rational. As I mentioned in the post A Bird and a Computer in the Brain (Two Systems ofThinking), quite often System 2 works on the inputs provided by system 1, which makes sometimes erroneous judgments. To put this a bit differently, system 2 may use a rigorous though process, but use flawed input data, thus even if the process was “rational” the result is “irrational”. In addition, irrational outcomes are more elaborate if system 2 is used more often.

Switching on system 2 more often has both advantages and disadvantages. Even if high need for cognition doesn’t lead to perfect rationality, it is better than low need for cognition in several aspects. The following implications refer to decision making.

First, a high level of need for cognition may lead to the occurrence of false memories. False memories refer to people remembering things that never happened or remembering seeing or hearing things that the individual was never exposed to. The false memories, however, refer only to things that are related to actual memories. For example, people might falsely remember “a chair” if they have been exposed to other related objects such as other pieces of furniture (table). False memories (usually) do not occur with regard to unrelated items such as “pigs” in the furniture case.

Second, people with high need for cognition as opposed to people with low need for cognition are less affected by the halo effect. This is not to say that people with high need for cognition are immune to the halo effect, but rather that they are affected less by it when compared with people who have a low need for cognition.

Third, people with high need for cognition compared with people with low need for cognition are less affected by anchoring effects. Again, this is not to say that people with high need for cognition are immune to anchoring effects, but rather that they are affected less by anchors.

Fourth, need for cognition influences the effect of priming. However, in the case of primes need for cognition can lead to both a diminished and an exaggerated effect of priming. When the priming is subtle, high need for cognition (as opposed to low need for cognition) leads to an exaggerated effect of the prime. This is due to the fact that when engaging in more elaborate thinking the subtle prime has more opportunities to influence the thought process. When the prime is obvious, however, a high level of need for cognition (as opposed to a low level) leads to a diminished effect of priming because people may correct their judgments being aware of the prime.  

Fifth, need for cognition influences the effect of stereotyping. People with high need for cognition are affected less by stereotypes as compared with people with low need for cognition. Again, they are not immune, but rather influenced less than people with low need for cognition.

Need for cognition also plays a role in Persuasion. In brief, people with high need for cognition tend to be influenced more by the quality of the arguments presented and less by cues such as the credibility of the source, the attractiveness of the person trying to persuade, the framing of the message and their own emotions. People with a low need for cognition tend to be persuaded more by the cues aforementioned and in the absence of external motivations they give significantly less importance to the quality of the arguments.

To sum up, need for cognition is a personality trait that refers to the degree of engaging in (and enjoying) effortful thinking. From the dual-system perspective, need for cognition refers to the extent to which system 2 reasoning is used. People with high (vs. low) need for cognition tend to be affected less by (but not immune to) judgment biases. When it comes to persuasion, people with high need for cognition focus more on the quality of the arguments, whereas people with low need for cognition focus more on other cues.

Need for cognition does not refer to intelligence. The main difference between high and low need for cognition is the willingness or disposition to engage in elaborate thinking. People with high need for cognition engage in elaborate thinking without external motivation or incentives, whereas people with low need for cognition do so only in the presence of external motivation.

The relevance of need cognition in practice

For human resources management need for cognition can be used in recruiting for jobs that demand high levels of critical thinking. In this case high levels of need for cognition should be preferred. For jobs that require more creativity and spontaneity, low levels of need for cognition should be preferred. For some small scale “execution” jobs need for cognition is irrelevant.

For marketing, need for cognition is relevant in two ways. First, when it comes to persuasion and marketing communication, marketers should be aware that in the absence of solid arguments people with high need for cognition will not be persuaded. For some product categories this is not really relevant, but for other product categories it can be highly important.

Second, considering that people with high need for cognition are affected less by judgment biases, this may lead to a decreased efficacy of choice architecture.
If you are interested in using need for cognition here is a link to one scale that measures it http://www.liberalarts.wabash.edu/ncs/

This post is documented from: Petty Richard E., Brinol Pablo, Loersch Chris, McCaslin Michael J. “Need for cognition” Chapter 21 in Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (source

22 January 2013

Who Would You Ideally Be and Who Would you Ought Be – Regulatory Focus

Each of us has two major references about ourselves, namely “who would you ideally be” and “who you ought to be”.  In more scientific terms the first reference is called the “Ideal Self” while the second is called the “Ought Self”.

To better understand, the “ideal self” is who (how) you would be if all your hopes, wishes and aspirations about yourself would become reality. Put a bit differently, the “ideal self” is who you would be if all your and your loved ones dreams about yourself would become true.  

At the other end of the spectrum, the “ought self” is who (how) you would be if you would fulfill all your felt duties, obligations, and responsibilities. Put it a bit differently, the “ought self” is who you would be if you would manage to never “screw up” anything.

Each and every one of us humans has an “ideal self” and an “ought self”. Which one is more important or more salient in our minds, however, is not the same for everyone.

Another universal truth about each and every human is that each of us tries to match our current (actual) selves to the “ideal self” or to the “ought self”. In other words, we tend to reduce the difference between who we actually are and either who we would ideally be or who would we ought to be. Which of these hypothetical selves we try to come closer depends on our regulatory focus.

“When promotion focused, people are motivated by growth and development needs in which they attempt to bring their actual selves (their behaviors and self-conceptions) in alignment with their ideal selves (...)

When prevention focused, people are responsive to security needs in which they try to match their actual selves with their “ought selves” (self-standards based on felt duties and responsibilities).” Brockner and Higgins (2001).

People with a (dominant) promotion focus are characterized by a focus on ensuring gains, whereas people with a (dominant) prevention focus are characterized by a focus on ensuring non-losses. As a general state of mind, eagerness is specific for promotion focus, while vigilance is specific for prevention focus.

I guess the difference between gaining and not losing seams very small, but as a psychological mantra the difference is quite significant. People who focus more on gaining are more willing to take risks in order to achieve their desiderate, but people who focus on not losing are less willing to take risks, because risks imply potential loses and their goal is to avoid them.

When it comes to which goals people are people driven by, Brockner and Higgins (2001) note that: “Promotion-focused people seek to attain the goals or standards associated with the “ideal self”, whereas prevention-focused people seek to attain the goals or standards associated with the “ought self”.”

Closely related to the goals one is driven by are the needs that an individual wants to satisfy. For people with a (dominant) promotion focus the needs that are most salient can be summed as “growth and development”.  For people with a (dominant) prevention focus the needs that are most salient can be summed as “security needs”.

This is not to be understood as people with promotion focus have only growth and development need, while people with a prevention focus have only security needs. All humans have both growth and security needs. Regulatory focus, however, distinguishes between which of these needs are dominant (salient) in one’s mind. To rephrase this, for some people it is more important to get pleasure (gains), while for others it is more important to avoid pain (non-loses).

Regulatory focus also plays a role in how people perceive the world and what kind of emotions they experience. People who have a dominant promotion focus tend to see the world as a cluster of opportunities, while people who have a dominant prevention focus tend to see the world as full of potential threats. When it comes to emotions, Brockner and Higgins (2001) note that: “Promotion-focused people’s emotions vary along a cheerful–dejected dimension, whereas prevention-focused people’s emotions vary along a quiescent–agitated dimension.”

An interesting implication of regulatory focus is the impact it has on creativity. By its very nature creativity involves risk, thus promotion focus is a factor that stimulates creativity, whereas prevention focus suppresses creativity.

After describing regulatory focus, a legitimate question has to be answered, namely which is better:  promotion or prevention focus? In order to give a pertinent answer another question has to be answered, namely: “For what?”.

A narrow view would favor the answer that promotion focus is better. After all who does not want to be and work with people who are achievers that continuously pursue gains and are creative? Reality is a bit different. I think that it is preferable that people who handle security at a nuclear power plant to have a dominant prevention focus and always keep in mind that “not screwing things up” is much more important than anything in the world.  Less extreme examples come from other professions such as accountants (I really don’t like “creative accountants”) and quality control.

For human resources management (but not only), regulatory focus has a major implication when it comes to motivation and incentives. Earlier, I have mentioned that for people with a dominant promotion focus, gains are more important than avoiding non-gains. Similarly, for people with a more dominant prevention focus, avoiding loses is more important than obtaining gains.

This implies that there should be a difference between the motivators for promotion focused people and the ones used for prevention focused individuals. Shah et. al. (1998) have demonstrated that performance increases if there is a match between an individual’s regulatory focus and the framing of the motivator. To put this more simply, people with a promotion focus are more efficient when they are incentivized with a potential gain compared with when they are threaten by a penalty (loss). People with a prevention focus are more efficient when they are threatened by a penalty compared with when they are incentivized with a potential gain.

In a more metaphorical light, carrots and sticks don’t work the same for everyone. Promotion focused people are better motivated with (the promise of) a carrot, while prevention focused people are better motivated with (the threat of) a stick.

In the field of marketing (especially communication), a similar principle applies. Congruency (matching) between the regulatory focus and the framing of the message leads to better results than discrepancy. In other words, if you target people who are more promotion focused, frame the message in a “achieving / gain” way; if you target people who are more prevention focused, frame the message in a more “not losing” way.

An interesting particularity of Regulatory focus is that it is both a trait and a state. To put this in simpler words, the type of regulatory focus (promotion or prevention) is a personality trait. Each person has both types of regulatory focus, but one of them is predominant. There are people who by their nature are more vigilant and cautious and there are people who are more achievement orientated. The cases in which a person has only one or the other type of regulatory focus are extremely rare.

Since, each of us has elements of both promotion and prevention focus, it is possible that one or the other is made more salient for a period of time. This is not to say that the base-line given by the personality trait disappears. Rather, by inducing a promotion or prevention focus state, all people become more promotion or prevention focused.

For example, if a person views a motivational speech, that person will become more promotion focus as compared with before attending the speech. After a certain period of time the feelings and concepts inoculated by the motivational speech will fade and each person will go back at the base-line he or she has.

The state characteristic of regulatory focus has many practical implications for marketing and human resources. The fact that the regulatory focus can shift depending on the context opens up many opportunities. Human resources professionals can induce promotion or prevention focus depending on the task that employees have to perform at a certain moment. For example, if there is a need for a “burst” of creativity, promotion focus can be temporarily induced in order to enhance creativity.

For marketing, implications are major. As I mentioned earlier, it is good to have a match (congruency) between regulatory focus and the framing of the communication. As a personality trait, regulatory focus is not very relevant for most customer profiling. The state, however, is highly relevant. Each and every person is in a more promotion or prevention focus depending on context and this creates opportunities to match marketing communication to the state.

For example, there are certain products and services categories that are by their nature more on the promotion or the prevention side. Take car alarms for example and you will understand that it is better to frame the message in a more prevention focus way.

Another application can be in investigating the state of mind a person is in a particular context such as people on a stadium. I would assume that in this context most people are in a promotion focus state.   

Before ending, I have to mention that regulatory focus belongs to both the personality dimension and the internal state dimension from the 4D Model of Behavior.  It belongs to the personality dimension with its personality trait side and to the internal state dimension with its state side.

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Note: This post is documented from:

Brockner Joel and Higgins E. Tory (2001)  Regulatory Focus Theory: Implications for the Study of Emotions at Work Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes Vol. 86, No. 1, September, pp. 35–66,

Shah James, Higgins E. Tory and Friedman Ronald S. (1998) Performance Incentives and Means: How Regulatory Focus Influences Goal Attainment Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 74, No. 2, 285-293

21 January 2013

The Big Five Personality Traits Model

The Big Five Personality Traits Model is the framework that gained a wide consensus in personality research. Its early versions were developed in early 1960s, but it took about 30 years for it to become main-stream and the most commonly accepted model of personality traits.

The model identified five major personality traits: (1) Openness, (2) Conscientiousness, (3) Extraversion, (4) Agreeableness and (5) Neuroticism. Each and every person has all these five personality traits and scores differently on each of them. In other words, the Big Five is not a categorical (taxonomy) model saying that some people are in “this” category, while others are in “that” category.

The Big Five was developed as a result of numerous attempts to create a comprehensive framework that captures most aspects of human personality. This means that the Big Five is broad and descriptive. It has some predictive value, but usually lower level (more specific) personality traits have a better predictive power.

In my view, for many areas of practice such as Human Resources management, the Big Five is “a good enough” predictor of behavior. At the same time, for other areas such as marketing, the Big Five would give inferior results as compared with more specific traits such as “price sensitiveness”.

Apart from covering a large area of human personality and being a comprehensive model, the Big Five Personality traits are overall stable throughout life. Indeed, there are some changes, but these are of low magnitude. For example, the “levels of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness typically increase with time, whereas Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Openness tend to decrease” (source) over long periods of time.  

Not only are the Big Five personality traits relatively stable throughout live, they are also heritable to a large degree. The heritability of the five personality traits rage from 57% for Openness to 42% for Agreeableness (source)

Next, each of the five personality traits will be described:

Openness to experience

As the name says, openness to experience reflects a general tendency of curiosity and a general positive attitude towards the “new”, the “unconventional” and variety.  Openness includes the ability to “Think out of the box”, or in other words, openness incorporates creativity, lack of conformity and the dispositions to be imaginative and broad-minded.

People who score high on openness to experience usually are in need of a high level of autonomy and freedom to act by their own guidelines.

Another characteristic of openness to experience that has emerged from research is the intellectual dimension, in the sense that people who score high on this trait have an inclination towards culture, art and exhibit intellectual curiosity. In my humble opinion, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Openness is a general human personality trait and many people are not even acquainted with art and culture. My suggestion is to view openness to experience as an indicator of intellectual intrigue or curiosity, but at the same time be aware that this tendency could be expressed in various ways including ones that have nothing to do with art and culture.


Conscientiousness is comprised out of two dimensions that are to a certain degree interdependent, namely achievement and dependability.

Achievement includes aspects such as being hardworking and perseverant towards achieving a defined goal.

Dependability includes aspects such as being highly organized, making (realistic) plans and acting in order to fulfill them. In addition it includes being careful, acting in a responsible manner and working thoroughly (not leaving loose ends). Characteristic for people with a high level of conscientiousness is that they exhibit a lot of self-discipline.


Similarly to conscientiousness, Extraversion is comprised out of two dimensions that are to a certain degree related, namely ambition and sociability.

Ambition includes aspects such as showing initiative, aiming at high achievements, being impetuous and showing zeal.

Sociability includes aspects such as being expressive and talkative, being assertive and expressive. It also includes a general tendency to seek the company of others and being active in a social group.

People who score high on Extraversion generally experience positive emotions (have a general positive affect) and show a lot of energy.  


Agreeableness sums up traits that make an individual to be liked by others. It includes elements such as being polite, flexible, trustworthy, caring, cooperative and tolerant.

People who score high on agreeableness usually do not exhibit behaviors such as being suborned, suspicious and antagonistic towards other individuals. They would also be more likely to be compassionate than to hold grudges against someone.

In a nut-shell, agreeableness represents how good someone is with people or, in other words, the level of social skills.


Neuroticism is also known as “emotional stability” if the trait is reversed – seen from the opposite perspective.

Neuroticism represents the tendency to experience general negative affect and specific negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, insecurity and hostility towards others.

People who score high on Neuroticism are easily affected in the emotional area. They tend to not be very good at managing their emotions. Moreover, they tend to interpret most events as being negative, thus making them vulnerable in face of even the slightest bad events.

People who score high on Neuroticism tend to feel embarrassed and worry about virtually everything.

The Big Five as Predictors of Job Performance

Now, having described the model and each of its components, I would like to focus on one of its major applications, namely predicting job performance.

One of the most known scientific works on the validity of the Big Five on predicting job performance is the meta analysis done by Barrick and Mount published in 1991. Next I will briefly present the results of this study.

The authors have hypothesized that conscientiousness and emotional stability (Neuroticism reversed) would be valid predictors of job performance overall for all types of jobs (regardless of job content). The rationale of these hypothesizes is that on one hand, conscientiousness “measures those personal characteristics that are important for accomplishing work tasks in all jobs”, while on the other hand “Emotional Stability (when viewed from the negative pole [Neuroticism]) measures those characteristics that may hinder successful performance.”

The results, however, confirmed only that conscientiousness is a valid predictor of overall job performance across all professions. Neuroticism (emotional stability) was found to not influence job performance in a negative manner. The explanation that the authors gave for this counterintuitive finding was that apart from extreme cases of high level neuroticism, the exact level of this personality trait does not really influence job performance.

With regard to Extraversion and Agreeableness, the authors hypothesized that they would be valid predictors of job performance in “those occupations that involve frequent interaction or cooperation with others”  

The results confirmed the hypothesis for extraversion being positively correlated with job performance for those occupations that involve social interaction. However, the results showed that agreeableness was not a predictor of job performance in these occupations (nor in other types of occupations).

With regard to openness to experience, the authors hypothesized that it would be a valid predictor of “training proficiency” which is a component of job performance. In other words, openness to experience will predict better learning “because Openness to Experience appears to assess individuals’ readiness to participate in learning experiences.”

This hypothesis was confirmed in the sense that openness to experience did positively correlate with training proficiency. The authors suggest that “it is possible that Openness to Experience is actually measuring ability to learn as well as motivation to learn”.

An interesting result emerged, namely that Extraversion was also a good predictor of training proficiency. The authors state that this could be due to the nature of the training programs analyzed in the study, which were mainly highly interactive “hands-on” trainings. This implies that people who score high on extraversion learn better than people who score low in interactive training sessions, while in a less interactive setting there would be no difference.

The Big Five as Predictors of Leadership

In a later study Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt (2002) have investigated the validity of the Big Five personality traits in predicting leadership effectiveness.  

As you might think, results were a bit different than the ones for job performance. Here they are in brief:

Extraversion proved to be the best predictor (out of the Big Five) of leadership effectiveness. The correlation is quite high (taking into account that the correlations between personality and effectiveness are usually small) – 0.31. This means that people who score high on Extraversion are the most likely to be good leaders.

Not surprising, Conscientiousness was also a positive predictor of good leadership. This can be seen as good performers become good leaders or that good leaders have to be both good performers and exhibit the characteristics of Conscientiousness.

Openness to Experience was also a positive predictor of leadership. This makes a lot of sense since good leaders should be intellectually curious and ready to try new experiences.

Neuroticism was found to negatively correlate with leadership. In other words people with a relatively low emotional stability tend to not be good leaders.

Agreeableness had a weak correlation with leadership suggesting that it is not a good predictor of leadership.

Putting together the results of the two studies I mentioned, an interesting conclusion emerges. Agreeableness is uncorrelated with both job performance and leadership. This is somehow counterintuitive and potentially dangerous.

First, it is counterintuitive since it seems like common sense that people who score high on agreeableness would perform better than people with low levels of agreeableness especially in jobs which demand social interactions. The data says it is not so.

Second, it is disturbing from the perspective or recruitment. People who are high on agreeableness make good impressions at (especially first) interviews. This can lead to the occurrence of the halo effect which in turn would make one think that the agreeable person has other positive characteristics.

Since not even agreeableness, is a predictor of job performance, the danger of the halo effect is even larger. My advice, ignore the agreeableness dimension altogether.

Shortcomings of the model

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Big Five personality traits model is not perfect. It has several shortcomings and the main ones are:

Firs, the model is mainly descriptive. This means that the Big Five is very good at describing human personality and it does not go far beyond that. The Big Five aggregates in a comprehensible manner most of what is known about personality, but is in many cases inferior to more specific personality traits in predicting behavior.

Second, the five personality traits are not fully independent one from another. In other words, there are some correlations between the traits. From a practical perspective this is not a serious issue, but from a theoretical one it can present some disadvantages. For example there is a negative correlation between extraversion and neuroticism.

Third, the Big Five does not cover the entire area of human personality. As I mentioned earlier, it covers most of what is known, but at the same time there are things left out. At the same time, in my view, it is unrealistic to expect a (relatively simple) model to cover absolutely everything in a vast and diverse domain such as human personality.

In conclusion, the Big Five personality traits model is the best compromise that could be achieved up to this point in personality psychology. It is not perfect, but I believe it is good enough to be at the same time relatively simple, comprehensive, sufficiently broad and have reasonable predictive power.  

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This post is documented from:
Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The Big Five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1–26.

Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.

17 January 2013

Who You Are

The general assumption in popular culture is that behavior is influenced only by the “character” of the individual. In scientific terms, “character” is called personality.

Attributing the behavior only to personality is erroneous and it is called “The Fundamental Attribution Error”. I have described it in an earlier post “Are you a jerk?” 

Throughout posts on this blog I have described influences on behavior of factors other than personality. At the same time in the 4 Dimensional Model of Behavior I have included personality as a source of human behavior.

Personality is not the only source of behavior and neither does it have the most important influence on behavior. At the same time, ignoring personality is wrong for both theory and practice. In some areas of practice such as marketing research personality has been (and still is) over-rated, but it does not mean that it should be ignored. Rather we should reassess its role in influencing behavior. In other areas such as human resources management and particularly recruitment personality was and still is highly relevant for assessing future behavior.

Not very long ago there was a school of thought in psychology (Behavioristic) which claimed that humans are born with “a blank mind” and that the environment and society is what shapes people in being what they are. For many years people believed that “society” is responsible for everything being it either good or bad.

Later research has shown that this perspective is fundamentally flawed. This is not to say that the environment and society don’t have an influence on us as individuals, but rather that for sure people are not born with “a blank mind”. Social and environmental factors influence how we behave and if we attribute behavior entirely to personality, then we can say that the environment and society shape personality. But, again, this is wrong.  

Reality is that what an individual is (personality) has a huge heritable component, but more on that a bit later.

Let’s see what personality is. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), “Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.” (Source http://www.apa.org/topics/personality/index.aspx)

To put this in another light, personality refers to elements that are consistent through time across many behaviors. Earlier I have mentioned that it is wrong to attribute behavior to personality only. However, patterns in (and not individual instances of) behavior can come from personality.

Personality refers to stable traits that are consistent throughout life (or at least long periods of time). Personality gives a base-line for behavior and the other three sources (Dimensions) of behavior build on the baseline set by personality.   

Earlier research and popular culture tend to see personality in a categorical manner. In other words, they tend to categorize people as having “This” or “That” type of personality. However, this is wrong because personality is complex and personality traits are not categorical.

Current research on personality makes use of the “Big Five Personality Traits” model (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism). I will explain in a future post each of these personality traits, but now it is important to know that each and every one of us has each of these personality traits and we have a score on each of them. In other words the Big Five is not a categorical model which says that some people are Agreeable while others are Neurotic. The Big Five says that everyone has these traits and scores different on each of them.

Another very important individual trait is intelligence (IQ). For marketing it is not necessarily important in the sense of measuring consumers’ IQs. For other areas such as human resources management and particularly recruiting it is very important. Numerous studies have proved that IQ is a very powerful predictor of job performance.

The study of personality has identified numerous personality traits, but their relevance is not fully clear. The Big Five and IQ are highly relevant for research and practice, so I will focus mostly on these traits. However, I will describe (in later posts) some other traits that I consider having a wider relevance. These traits are: need for cognition, need for uniqueness, regulatory focus, price conscientiousness and Life History Strategy adopted.

Another element that I consider to be highly important and include it in the Personality dimension (although it is not a personality trait) is gender. Men and women are different and this influences behavior. In no way I am saying men are better than women or the other way around. It is just that when analyzing and trying to influence behavior it is not necessarily a good idea to always think that men and women are exactly the same. In some cases men and women react to stimuli in similar manners, in other cases they don’t.

Hormonal activity influences behavior and to a certain degree personality. I will not address these influences, but you should know that a lot of behavior comes from the levels of different hormones we have. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend looking at behavioral biology.

Before concluding, I would like to make a note on the Big Five Personality traits and IQ. These personal characteristics are to a large extent heritable through both genetic and cultural (nurture) means. Putting things a bit differently, with what we are born is what we will have for the rest of our lives. It is not impossible to slightly improve one’s IQ or other traits, but don’t expect miracles.

To sum up, The Personality dimension of the 4D Model of Behavior  represents those traits (characteristics) that are stable across time and an individual has them throughout life. They set a base-line for behavior and are not the only (nor the most important) source of behavior.     

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