Self-Affirmation through the Choice of Highly Aesthetic Products
Just as good looks bestow an unconscious “beauty premium” on people, high aesthetics bestows an unrecognized benefit on consumer goods. Specifically, choosing a product with good design affirms the consumer’s sense of self. Choice of a highly aesthetic product was compared with choice of products superior on other attributes including function, brand, and hedonics to show that only aesthetics influences a consumer’s personal values. In study 1 a prior self-affirming task leads to a decrease in choice share of a highly aesthetic option. Studies 2 and 3 mimic prior research on self-affirmation with, however, choice of a highly aesthetic product replacing a traditional self-affirmation manipulation. Choosing a product with good design resulted in increased openness to counter-attitudinal arguments and reduced propensity to escalate commitment toward a failing course of action. There are numerous implications of this form of self-affirmation, from public policy to retail therapy.
Can product choice influence a person’s sense of self? Past research has shown that people choose products that reflect their self-image (e.g., Aaker 1997; Belk 1988; Gardner and Levy 1955; Levy 1959; Sirgy 1982). In other words, the choice of product is influenced by the consumer’s sense of self. In this research we examine the reverse relationship, namely, that product choice can directly affect the self and affirm one’s innermost personal values. We suggest that an attractive design for a product can have similar effects as an attractive physical appearance for a person. Further, on the basis of research in personal values, we propose that products that are aesthetically beautiful are indeed a form of self-affirmation.
We draw on several psychological findings to implicate aesthetics as a special product attribute that can affirm the self. First, research on personal values recognizes that appreciation of beauty is a “basic human value common to all [people]” (Vernon and Allport 1931, 232). This cannot be said for functional product attributes. Second, studies of interpersonal perception have found a universal and innate bias to equate beauty with goodness in people. The attractiveness of an individual has positive effects on our judgments of them in other, apparently unrelated, dimensions (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972; Langlois et al. 2000) and this bias is strong enough to affect behavior (Langlois et al. 2000; Solnick and Schweitzer 1999). We propose that this “beauty premium” applies to product choice such that associating oneself with a beautiful product similarly improves a consumer’s sense of self. Additionally, we examine the connection between a consumer and her products—how ideas about the self influence consumption and, more relatedly, how consumption can influence notions of the self. Integrating these findings into the framework of self-affirmation provides the basis for our hypothesis.
Aesthetics has been identified as a fundamental personal value from the very beginning of personality research. The first substantial work on personal values was Vernon and Allport’s Study of Values (1931) and included six major types: theoretical, economic, social, political, religious, and aesthetics. They sought an inventory of human values that are not “too trivial, too heterogeneous, or entangled with the ulterior objectives of vocational guidance” (Vernon and Allport 1931, 232). Forty years later their Study of Values was the third most cited nonprojective measure of personality in the field of psychology. The study has been updated and revised (Allport, Vernon, and Lindzey 1951, 1960, 1970; Kopelman, Rovenpor, and Guan 2003), and yet all versions have included “aesthetics” as one of the six major values. While the relative importance of the various values differs among individuals, it is accepted that aesthetics is a universal value common to all.
Among the universal values, aesthetics has a special relevance to consumer behavior in three ways: aesthetics is innately appreciated (Langlois et al. 1991), has evolutionary benefits (Dutton 2003), and is applicable in a product context. First, research on person perception and the so-called beauty premium suggests the preference for beauty is intrinsic. Studies of the beauty premium indicate that attractive people are, for the most part, rated higher than less attractive people on apparently unrelated positive traits, including intelligence and social skills (Dion et al. 1972; Hamermesh and Biddle 1994; McArthur 1982; Miller 1970), being nurturing (Dion et al. 1972), ethical (Dion et al. 1972), or competent at one’s job (Langlois et al. 2000). Attractive individuals are rated better even when the task is implicit—when attention is not directed toward an individual’s looks and an explicit appraisal is not required (Van Leeuwen and Macrae 2004)—and even in the face of evidence to the contrary (Clifford and Walster 1973). The bias toward beauty goes beyond mere preference judgments to influence behavior in a public goods game (Andreoni and Petrie 2008) and even in real world incomes earned (Hamermesh and Biddle 1994). Studies of infants reveal consistent cross-cultural aesthetic preferences (e.g., symmetry; Bornstein, Ferdinandsen, and Gross 1981) and behavioral responses (e.g., greater visual interest for beauty; Langlois et al. 1991; Ramsey et al. 2004), further demonstrating that response to beauty is not learned but rather innate.
Second, the field of evolutionary aesthetics (Voland and Grammer 2003) explains how aesthetic preferences inform both our selection of sexual partners and mates (Grammer et al. 2003) and the habitats in which to live (Wypijewski 1997). More relevant in the context of consumer goods is the notion from evolutionary aesthetics that creation, acquisition, and appreciation of beauty are considered demonstrations of virtuosity and surplus resources (Dutton 2003). Like a peacock’s beautiful tail feathers that attract mates but also predators, owning a product that looks nice regardless of whether it helps or hinders functionality may make us more attractive to others and similarly boost our sense of self.
Third, unlike the other universal values identified—theoretical, economic, social, political, and religious—aesthetics is the primary one with a direct expression in consumer products. Without inference or learned response, a product can be aesthetically pleasing. In contrast, for a product to be symbolic of a religion or a political view, the consumer must have learned an association or meaning behind a symbol. After aesthetics, the next value that might most obviously find expression in product choice is that of economics as represented in the option’s price. We therefore address the possibility of price as a self-affirming attribute in our studies. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the beauty bias is not just applied in perceptions of people but also products—packaged goods (Raghubir and Greenleaf 2006) and even financial products (Townsend and Shu 2010).
Having established aesthetics as both a fundamental and universal value as well as unique among the fundamental values, we next examine the connection between personal values and attitudes. Steele’s self-affirmation theory offers such a connection; it is based on the notion that people are motivated to affirm personal values in order to see themselves as competent and sensible individuals. When self-integrity is threatened, affirming a central aspect of one’s identity, such as a personal value, can function to restore integrity and reduce the threat to self (Steele 1988). On a day-to-day basis, even when a threat is not necessarily present, this motivation influences the information people seek out and the way in which situations are understood, biasing people to look for and understand information in a manner that offers positive reinforcement (Allport 1943; Epstein 1973; Steele 1988). Importantly, Steele describes people’s desire for positive self-regard as fungible; it is not compartmentalized, where a threat to self in one domain requires endorsement in that same domain. The idea is that reminding a person of his core values and qualities can provide perspective and anchor his sense of self in the face of threat in another arena.
While research on self-affirmation has not examined product choice as a response to threat, there is evidence of such behavior (Gao, Wheeler, and Shiv 2009). Materialism has been shown to be a consequence of mortality salience and also threats to one’s culture (e.g., September 11, 2001, in the United States; Arndt et al. 2004). One’s cultural views are constructed and personal, and when this belief is shaken, people turn to basic and easily shared venues to reinforce the self. Specific to aesthetics, mortality salience increases both the perceived importance of attributes that denote physical attractiveness and also susceptibility to product messages pitching the ability to enhance personal attractiveness (Goldenberg et al. 2000). Ironically, threats to the self increase the importance of achieving personal attractiveness even when such behavior is in opposition to a health or survival goal. For example, eating less calorie-rich food (Goldenberg et al. 2005) and selecting less protective sunscreen (Routledge, Arndt, and Goldenberg 2004) is a consequence of the activation of death-related thoughts. The implication is that beauty is a fundamental value that can even supersede health.
We suggest that the notion of aesthetics as an important personal value extends from people to products. Prior research in consumer behavior shows that consumers choose products that reflect who they are (Gao et al. 2009) and who they are not (Berger and Heath 2007). Research on brand identity reveals how meaning can be transferred from a reference group who uses a brand to the brand (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001) and then to the consumer who selects the brand (McCracken 1989). Consumers therefore construct and maintain self-concepts through the use of branded consumer products (Escalas and Bettman 2005; Fournier 1998). Brand is an important attribute in self-identifying consumer behavior because it is generally conspicuous. Products and attributes that are more conspicuous are better at value-expressiveness and therefore have a greater impact on self-concept (Sirgy, Johar, and Wood 1986; Wright, Claiborne, and Sirgy 1992).
Our proposal is that rather than simply reflecting the self, product choice can directly influence the self. This is consistent with research that shows consumers seeking to change their self-identity by means of experiential purchases (e.g., Arnould and Price 1993; Celsi, Rose, and Leigh 1993; Schouten 1991). In these examples, by engaging in an act, consumers seek a specific self-identity through white-water rafting (Arnould and Price 1993), sky diving (Celsi et al. 1993), or plastic surgery (Shouten 1991). Indeed, Shouten’s (1991) research also reveals the strong relationship between aesthetics and sense of self. By consciously choosing these kinds of experiential purchases, consumers can influence their sense of self and boost self-esteem. But even when the good is not an experience, it can have behavioral, psychological, and even neural influences on the consumer. Reimann et al.’s (2010) examination of such effects for highly aesthetic product packaging again suggests aesthetics as the attribute through which product choice might affirm the self. In this article, we suggest that, similar to such experiential purchases, aesthetics affirms consumers’ sense of self but merely through choice rather than engagement in an activity.
In the following three studies we explore this notion of the choice of attractive products as a conduit for affirmation of the self. We use the well-established methodology of self-affirmation research as the starting point of our investigation. If, as we propose, self-affirmation is a motivation for choice of highly aesthetic goods, then affirming decision makers’ sense of self prior to a choice task ought to decrease the share of the highly aesthetic object. We explore this in study 1. Studies 2 and 3 reveal the impact of aesthetics choice on subsequent behavior as it relates to self-affirmation. In study 2 we examine how choice of preferred design, functionality, or another hedonic attribute besides design influences openness to counter-attitudinal arguments. In study 3 we examine how choice of high design, high function, or preferred brand influences escalation of commitment. Because self-affirmation affects openness to arguments and propensity to escalate previous commitments, collectively these studies speak to how choice of high design is self-affirming.
Study 1: The Impact Of Self-Affirmation on Choice
In study 1 we test the prediction that desire for self-affirmation is a motivator for choice of highly aesthetic products by having respondents affirm the self before making a choice between options that vary in aesthetic appeal. Because of self-affirmation’s fungible nature, if participants who engage in a self-affirming activity are less likely to purchase the high-design option in a choice set than participants who did not engage in a self-affirming activity (or engage in a disaffirming one), then this is evidence that self-affirmation can be a motive for choosing highly aesthetic objects. In other words, we expect that the impact of self-affirmation in a prior task will be to decrease share of the high-design option. In contrast, because functionality does not implicate the self, affirmation should not have an impact on choices between options that vary in functionality.
This prediction also makes sense in light of work by Correll, Spencer, and Zanna (2004) that suggests self-affirmation causes participants to pay more attention to argument strength and be more objective in examining arguments. In terms of consumer product choice, self-affirmation should lead to choices that are more objectively motivated and not affected by a desire to self-affirm.
In an attempt to isolate any effects as specific to aesthetics and to self-affirmation, we take several precautions in our methodology and stimulus. In all studies, when we discuss “design” we refer to the purely aesthetic and functionally independent aspects of a product. Thus, aesthetic variation implies differences in only the physical looks of a product and not its functionality. Also, it is not our prediction that a desire for affirmation motivates choice of products superior on any attribute or that a desire for affirmation motivates choice of any more expensive product; our prediction is specific to the attribute of design. Therefore, we examine the influence of self-affirmation not only on products that vary on aesthetics but also on products that vary on functionality. We also pretested the functional attributes used to ensure they were considered equally important to aesthetics. Another precaution concerned the product categories used. Consumers use products to express themselves to others (Belk 1988; Kleine, Kleine, and Kernan 1993). This is easiest with publicly consumed badge products. And aesthetics is, presumably, an attribute through which such communication may occur. We are less interested in this aspect of aesthetic choice; thus, in order to control for these kinds of social factors, we use nonbadge product categories. We also contribute to previous research on self-affirmation by including a control condition in addition to the traditional self-affirmation and self-disaffirmation conditions. The affirmation and disaffirmation manipulations we use follow those employed by Steele and Liu (1983) and Liu and Steele (1986) and those used most often in subsequent self-affirmation studies (McQueen and Klein 2006). While Steele and Liu use this disaffirmation condition as a control, we add a control condition to ensure that the act of discussing one’s values is not having an effect on choice. Thus, we extend the self-affirmation literature and account for the likely confound that both the disaffirmation and affirmation manipulations force respondents to attend to personal values. In addition, in order to rule out any mood-based explanation as a result of the affirmation manipulation, we perform a pretest asking respondents to rate their mood after the initial self-affirmation, -disaffirmation, or control manipulation.
One hundred fifty-nine participants—students at UCLA—were randomly assigned to one of six conditions in a 3 (self feelings manipulation: affirmation, disaffirmation, or control) × 2 (attribute variation: design or functional) between-subjects design.
There were two sections to the study, and participants were led to believe the two sections were independent experiments. The first section consisted of the self-affirmation manipulation and the second section consisted of hypothetical product choices.
In the first task participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (1) self-affirmation, (2) self-disaffirmation, or (3) control. In the affirmation and disaffirmation conditions, participants were presented with a list of values (e.g., relationship with family members, romantic values, creativity, etc.) adapted from Allport et al. (1970) and asked to rank the values in order of personal importance. Note that, despite the recognition of aesthetics as a fundamental value, we did not include it in the scale as we did not want to predispose respondents to value it more than usual. Respondents in the affirmation condition were then asked to consider the value he or she ranked as most important and write briefly about why it is important, as well as to describe a time in the past when it was particularly important to them as an individual. Participants in the disaffirmation condition were asked to consider their lowest ranked value and write a brief essay describing why the value might be important to the average student. Participants in the control condition were asked to write about what they did the prior day between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
After completing the first section, all respondents then participated in two hypothetical purchase decisions that were presented as unrelated to the previous task. The product categories were selected to exclude those that are publicly consumed and those in which aesthetics are integral to function, such as art or clothing. In addition, we sought products that are relevant to our student population. Thus, each purchase decision involved a choice between either two desk lamps or two calculators with the order randomized across subjects. The two choice options either varied on price and a functional attribute (number of brightness settings for the desk lamp or whether the face folded flat for easy storage for the calculator) or price and design (as shown in the photograph of the product). In the functional variation condition, the design level was the same for both options as presented in two identical photographs. In the design variation condition, the functional attribute levels were the same for both options. Therefore, only two product attributes (function and price or design and price) were ever varying in any choice decision. An example is included in the appendix, which is available in the electronic edition of the journal. The two product options were presented side by side with the order of presentation randomized across subjects. For each product participants were presented with its price, its level on a functional attribute, and its aesthetic level as represented in a black and white photograph of the product. The photographs were pretested to ensure that there was common agreement (over 90%) on which exhibited greater aesthetic appeal. The instructions asked participants to assume that the two options were identical on all information not presented. Finally, the prices were pretested to ensure that the two options were generally balanced in their overall appeal.
Seventy-two participants, taken from the same population as used for the main study, were asked about the importance of attributes when making a purchase decision that the two product categories tested. Pretest participants were asked to explain the attributes’ relative importance by allocating 100 importance points to price, “the overall look/design,” and the relevant functional attribute when making a purchase from the product category. “Overall look/design” of an option is consistently rated as less important than price (Mdesign = 25.60, Mprice = 42.69; t(71) = 5.22, p = .00) and equally important to the functional attribute (Mdesign = 25.60, Mfunction = 28.5; t(71) = 1.17; p = .25).
Seventy (70) participants, taken from the same population as used in the main study, were randomly assigned to one of the three self manipulations and then asked to rate their current mood. We used a version of the positive and negative affect scale (PANAS; Watson, Clark, and Tellegen 1988) with four 7-point scales where endpoints of the four scales were sad and happy; bad mood and good mood; irritable and pleased; and depressed and cheerful. We find no significant differences among the three conditions on any of the four measures (sad/happy: Maffirm = 5.50, Mcontrol = 5.09, Mdisaffirm = 5.41; F(2, 69) = 1.08, p = .35; bad mood/good mood: Maffirm = 5.08, Mcontrol = 5.27, Mdisaffirm = 4.75; F(2, 69) = 1.85, p = .17; irritable/pleased: Maffirm = 54.92, Mcontrol = 4.55, Mdisaffirm = 4.58; F(2, 69) = .54, p = .58; depressed/cheerful: Maffirm = 5.33, Mcontrol = 5.00, Mdisaffirm = 4.71; F(2, 69) = 1.31, p = .28).
Affirmation, Disaffirmation, and Control
Our prediction was supported. Consistent with previous self-affirmation research, we examine only the affirmation and disaffirmation conditions first. As predicted, the interaction of attribute variation (i.e., functional or design) and self-manipulation (i.e., affirmed or disaffirmed) is significant (χ2 = 6.85, p = .009). Adding to the standard self-affirmation literature, the inclusion of the control condition allows us to compare these conditions with a true control that does not involve personal values. Including only the affirmation and control conditions, again the interaction of attribute variation and self-manipulation is significant (χ2 = 7.53, p = .006). In contrast, the interaction is not significant when the disaffirmation and control conditions are included (χ2 = .11, p = .918). This suggests that the effects are driven by the affirmation condition. In other words, disaffirming a person’s sense of self does not affect their choice behavior, but affirming a person’s sense of self decreases the share of the high-design option.
Choice with Functional Variation
Regardless of whether their sense of self was affirmed, disaffirmed, or not manipulated, on average one-third of respondents (34%, 33%, and 32%, respectively) selected the high-functioning, high-priced option. The self-manipulation appeared to have no impact on choice behavior (F(2, 294) = .142, p = .87, NS). The implication here is that respondents did not look to choice of a highly functioning option as a means of affirming their sense of self.
Choice with Design Variation
As predicted, in the self-affirmation condition, participants were less likely to choose the more aesthetic option than participants in either the control or self-disaffirmation condition (20% vs. 46% and 47%, respectively; F(2, 294) = 7.72, p < .001). See table 1. After affirming the self, participants evidently did not need to select a product that would bolster feelings about themselves.
That affirming an individual’s sense of self then makes him less likely to select the highly aesthetic option implies that part of the motivation for choosing high design is an effort to boost one’s sense of self. Moreover, that this does not occur when there is no design variation between options and only functional and price variation suggests that design affirms the self, whereas functionality does not. In other words, this drive for self-affirmation is not broadly directed at the more expensive option or the generally higher quality option but specifically at the more aesthetically pleasing one. Evidently, the desire for beautiful objects is a fundamental value across participants. Consistent with previous research (Allport 1943; Epstein 1973), the effect is driven by the affirmation condition, implying that consumers are generally in a state of seeking affirmation.
Study 2: The Impact of Design Choice on Openness
Can choosing an attractive-looking product directly affirm the self? Study 1 suggests that choice of high design is partly motivated by a desire for self-affirmation. The next study serves as a more direct test of this by examining the impact of aesthetic choice on subsequent attitudes.
It is well known that self-affirmation fosters openness to counter-attitudinal arguments. Previous research shows that people generally allow their beliefs to bias their evaluation of situations, but by affirming a person’s sense of self this bias can be overcome. Cohen, Aronson, and Steele (2000) demonstrate how self-affirmation has the effect of increasing a person’s openness to counter-attitudinal arguments. In their study participants were exposed to a debate between a pro-choice and pro-life abortion activist. Control participants show a confirmation bias, judging the activist who shares their views on abortion as more favorable than the opposing activist. However, respondents who affirmed an unrelated source of self-worth (by writing about a personally important value) do not show this confirmation bias. These self-affirmed participants rated the activist who shared their view less positively than participants of the same viewpoint in the control condition.
Accordingly, in this study we examine whether or not choosing an aesthetically pleasing option is self-affirming in the same way as writing about a personally important value. If the choice of a more aesthetic option is a direct form of self-affirmation, then such a choice should result in an increase in openness to arguments in comparison to the choice of a less aesthetic option.
In study 2 we also test whether the results are specific to aesthetics or rather generalize to other hedonic attributes. An alternative explanation is that the hedonic aspect of aesthetics, not the personal value aspect, could be responsible for the result in study 1. We therefore include conditions where the options vary on a hedonic attribute other than aesthetics to see if the effect is the same. If we do not find that choice of an option with preferred hedonic attribute level has the same influence on subsequent behavior as choice of preferred aesthetics, then we can conclude that this effect is not general to all hedonic attributes. Additionally, while our first study used a student population, in this study we draw from a national sample with greater variation in age.
Two hundred seventy-five participants taken from a national sample (59% female, Mage = 35.6; SD = 12.44, 36 states represented) were randomly assigned to one of six conditions in a 2 (superior option: high or low) × 3 (attribute variation: design, functional, hedonic) between-subjects design. Respondents were recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and compensated for their time.
There were two sections to the study, and participants were led to believe the two sections were independent experiments. The first section consisted of a hypothetical choice task, and the second section consisted of reading and evaluating a counter-attitudinal argument.
In the first section respondents were asked to make two hypothetical choices between two coffeemakers and two wireless computer mice. The choice task was similar to that used in study 1, where respondents saw the two options side by side with the order randomized across participants. As in the previous study, one of the independent variables was whether the options varied on price and design as presented in a black-and-white photograph of the two options (design variation) or on price and function (functional variation). We also included the third variation in this study of variation on price and hedonic attribute (hedonic variation). For each option respondents were shown an image of the product, its price, its level on a functional attribute (whether it requires a mouse pad or similar surface or works on any surface for the mouse and whether it has a programmable timer for wake-up coffee or not for the coffeemaker), or its level on a hedonic attribute (rating by consumers on comfort and ease of use for the mouse and rating by consumers on taste of the coffee for the coffeemaker). The photographs were pretested to ensure that there was common agreement (over 90%) on which option was better looking. The directions asked participants to assume that the two options were identical on all information not presented.
The other independent variable was whether the choice set favored selection of the high option—high design or high function (superior high option) or favored selection of the lower option—low design or low function (superior low option). This was manipulated through the prices assigned to the two choices. In the conditions favoring the high choice, the prices for the two options were the same. In the condition favoring the low choice, the high option (high design or high function) was priced six times as high as the low option.
The second section was the same for respondents in all four conditions. First, participants were asked whether they are for or against the use of animals for medical testing and research. After stating their position, they were asked to read a half-page argument against their position. They were then asked to rate the article and its author on six 7-point scales in an effort to measure how open they are to the argument presented against their own point of view. Following the work of Cohen et al. (2007), respondents were asked to rate the argument on how convincing, valid, and reasonable it was and rate the author on how intelligent, informed, and biased he or she was.
Respondents were also asked to rate the importance of animal testing to them and how carefully they read the article. These last two measures were to ensure there was no difference between groups despite random assignment.
While there is no direct measure of self-affirmation, prior work has used a self-integrity scale (Cohen, Garcia, and Sherman 2009), where participants indicated their agreement with statements designed to assess a feeling of general moral and adaptive adequacy (Steele 1988), such as “I feel that I’m basically a moral person” (Sherman et al. 2009). We use this scale as a preliminary pretest that choice of high design might be a form of self-affirmation prior to measuring the main study, where we examine behavioral consequences of affirmation.
To that end, 64 participants, taken from the same population as that used in the main study, were randomly assigned to one of the six conditions used in part 1 of study 2: 2 (superior option: high or low) × 3 (attribute variation: design, functional, hedonic) and then asked to fill out the eight-item self-integrity scale, where participants indicated their agreement with each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
We test for a main effect of choosing the higher (preferred) option versus the lower (nonpreferred) option and find there is no effect on self-integrity ratings (mean rating: MHigh option = 5.9, MLow option = 5.8; t(62) = .42, p = .68). We then examine the results for each attribute variation separately. We find choice of high design results in higher ratings of self-integrity than choice of low design: MHigh design = 6.3, MLow design = 5.7; t(24) = 1.76, p = .09). There is no difference in ratings after choice of high function versus low function (MHigh function = 5.6, MLow function = 5.9; t(21) = .76, p = .46) or high hedonic versus low hedonic (MHigh hedonic = 5.7, MLow hedonic = 5.8; t(13) = .18, p = .86. This is a first indication that choice of high design may be self-affirming and that this effect is specific to aesthetics and not general to choice of a preferred option, a higher priced option, or a more hedonic option.
As in study 1, we examine whether there is a mood effect of the first part of our study on the second part. To that end, 58 participants, taken from the same population as used in the main study, were randomly assigned to one of the six conditions used in part 1 of study 2: 2 (superior option: high or low) × 3 (attribute variation: design, functional, hedonic) and then asked to rate their current mood. As with the pretest used in study 1, we used a version of the PANAS scale (Watson et al. 1988).
We test for a main effect of choosing the higher (preferred) option versus the lower (nonpreferred) option and find there is no effect on mood (mean rating: MHigh option = 5.1, MLow option = 5.5; t(56) = 1.29, p = .21). We then examine the results for each attribute variation separately. Consistent with our self-affirmation explanation, we found no significant differences between choice of high design and low design on any of the measures (average rating of four measures, where higher is more positive: MHigh design = 5.4, MLow design = 5.6; t(14) = .35, p = .735), nor between choice of the high or low hedonic attribute measures (average rating: MHigh hedonic = 5.6, MLow hedonic = 5.4; t(22) = .38, p = .711). When examining differences between choice of high and low function we find there is a difference (MHigh function = 4.2, MLow function = 5.6; t(16) = 2.2, p = .042). Respondents who choose the more functional option report lower mood scores than those who choose the less functional option. Since this does not relate to our predictions regarding design, we do not discuss this particular result further. See table 2 for full PANAS mood ratings.
|Design variation||Functional variation||Hedonic variation|
|Article measures mean||5.6a||4.7||4.6||4.9||4.7||4.5|
|Author measures mean||5.6a||5.2||4.9||5.2||5.1||5.1|
Across all six conditions, 25 of 275 (9%) of respondents did not make both of the choices encouraged by the set-up involving price differences. Of those 25 individuals, most of them (66%) were respondents who were in the low-design condition (encouraged to select the low-design option) but selected the high-design option in at least one of the two choices, despite it being six times the cost. The data from all 25 of these respondents were not included in the following analysis; therefore, the final sample consists of 250 respondents. However, if these data had been included and categorized on the basis of actual choice (rather than on condition of desired choice), the results would remain the same.
Choice of High or Low Option
We test for a main effect of choosing the higher (preferred) option versus the lower (nonpreferred) option and find there is no effect on openness to counter-attitudinal arguments (mean rating: MHigh option = 5.1, MLow option = 4.9; F(1, 248) = 1.34, p = .25). We also test for a main effect of attribute variation—whether design, function, or another hedonic attribute—and find an effect whereby respondents who chose between products varying on design were more open, overall, than respondents who chose between products that varied on either function or hedonics (mean rating: Mdesign = 5.2, Mfunction = 4.9, Mhedonic = 4.9; F(2, 247) = 3.15, p = .04). This main effect is coupled with a significant interaction effect of these two variables (F(2, 245) = 7.09, p = .001). Next we examine the results for each attribute variation separately.
Our prediction was supported. Among respondents who made a choice between options with design variation, respondents who selected the more aesthetic option (superior high design option) rate the argument/article as more convincing, valid, and reasonable (MHigh design = 5.6, MLow design = 4.7; t(77) = 2.96, p = .004) and the author as more intelligent, informed, and less biased (MHigh design = 5.6, MLow design = 5.2; t(77) = 2.02, p = .040) than do respondents who selected the less aesthetic option (superior low design option). This supports our hypothesis. See table 2.
Our hypothesis is further supported by the lack of significant differences in scores among respondents who made a choice between options with functional variation and no design variation. Regardless of whether respondents selected the more or less functional option (superior high function option or superior low function option), their ratings of the argument (MHigh function = 4.6, MLow function = 4.9; t(83) = .72, p = .47) and the author (MHigh function = 4.9, MLow function = 5.2; t(83) = 1.14, p = .26) do not significantly differ.
In addition to aesthetics we tested another hedonic attribute for each product category. As with function, regardless of whether respondents selected the more or less hedonic option (superior high comfort and ease/taste option or superior low comfort and ease/taste option), their ratings of the argument (MHigh hedonic = 4.7, MLow hedonic = 4.6; t(84) = .59, p = .60) and the author (MHigh hedonic = 5.1, MLow hedonic = 5.1; t(84) = .52, p = .69) do not differ significantly. Thus, the impact on self-regard—and, as a result openness to argument—of choosing a preferred versus not preferred option appears to be specific to aesthetic variation and is not a result of selecting the high function option, the more hedonic option, or simply being presented with an easier or a more difficult choice problem. See figure 1.
At the end of the study, after respondents made the hypothetical product choice and then read and judged the argument, they were asked to rate the importance of the issue and the carefulness with which they read the argument. There are no reported differences in both measures between superior high design option and superior low design option, supporting our explanation based on self-affirmation (“importance of issue,” MHigh design = 3.9, MLow design = 4.5; t(77) = 1.67, p = .10), and (“how carefully read argument,” MHigh design = 6.1, MLow design = 6.2; t(77) = .40, p = .69). The implication is that the resulting differences in openness to argument between respondents in these two conditions is not due to the personal importance of the argument or carefulness with which they read it. Moreover, there are no differences between the two functional variation conditions on these two measures (“importance of issue,” MHigh function = 4.6, MLow function = 4.8; t(83) = .37, p = .72), and (“how carefully read argument,” MHigh function = 6.1, MLow function = 6.4; t(83) = 1.45, p = .15). Nor are there differences between the two hedonic variation conditions (“importance of issue,” MHigh function = 4.3, MLow function = 4.1; t(84) = .62, p = .54), and (“how carefully read argument,” MHigh function = 6.3, MLow function = 6.2; t(84) = 53, p = .60).
Thus far we have examined two ways to test the notion that choice of highly aesthetic products is linked to self-affirmation. Study 1 tests this connection by looking at the impact of self-affirmation on choice of products with high design. Study 2 examined the psychological impact of choosing high design on subsequent attitudes. Thus, while study 1 speaks to how self-affirmation may motivate the choice of high design, study 2 tests whether such choice behavior directly affects sense of self. Study 2 also adds to the self-affirmation literature by revealing that product choice can have the same impact on subsequent judgments as the more explicit essay manipulations or positive feedback typically used (McQueen and Klein 2006), which directly address personal values. In study 2 we also examined the influence of choice of a hedonic attribute that is not design. Respondents in these conditions rated the article and its author similar to respondents in the functional variation condition and showed no significant difference between choice of high or low. Therefore, it appears that our effect is specific to aesthetics and does not apply to all hedonic or pleasure-related attributes.
In the next study we attempt to rule out a remaining alternative explanation based on a positivity bias. Previous research has shown that consumption of hedonic benefits, including aesthetics, is associated with a promotion focus—it is a consequence of such a focus and it also leads to promotion-related emotions such as excitement (Chitturi, Raghunathan, and Mahajan 2008). In addition, a promotion focus is associated with greater focus on positive outcomes than a prevention focus (Higgins 1997, 1998). This would suggest that choosing based on aesthetic attributes may lead to a more positive and accepting point of view, separate from any effect of aesthetics and self-affirmation.
In study 3 we address this positivity explanation by turning to a paradigm based on escalation of commitment (Staw 1976). Psychologically similar to the propensity to allow one’s beliefs to bias acceptance of new information, people often allow previous investments to motivate future ones. This bias has been found in decisions involving financial investments (Ross and Staw 1989), human resource allocations (Schoorman 1988), and even war (Lipshitz 1995). Escalating commitment to a failing course of action has been interpreted as an attempt to affirm the appropriateness of the first investment in response to the self-threat of negative feedback. Honoring sunk costs has been explained, therefore, as being born out of a need for affirmation (Brockner 1992). Importantly, self-affirmation has been shown to decrease escalation. Sivanthan et al. (2008) find that, after an initial investment in an area and subsequent negative feedback on this investment, respondents who ruminated on their dedication to a personally relevant value (a self-affirmation manipulation) reinvest fewer funds than respondents who ruminated on a personally irrelevant value. The authors explain that the feelings of self-worth that come from affirming one’s dedication to a value of personal relevance alleviate the threat of having made a poor decision; with this threat assuaged, there is less need to do so through escalation of commitment.
Thus, the escalation paradigm allows us to distinguish between a self-affirmation explanation and a positivity bias. If choice of high design leads to a de-escalation of commitment, then this is further evidence that choice of high design is self-affirming. Moreover, since de-escalation involves putting fewer resources toward the project, this should distinguish an explanation based on self-affirmation from a positivity bias.
Additionally, in study 3 we also include a condition to show that aesthetics is unique among enriched attributes in regard to self-affirmation. Brand has been identified as an enriched attribute that is potentially important to the self (Nowlis and Simonson 1997). If we do not find that choice of a preferred brand has the same influence on subsequent behavior as choice of preferred aesthetics, then this further confirms our finding from study 2 that this effect is not general to all product attributes.
Study 3: The Impact Of Design Choice on Escalation of Commitment
Three hundred twenty-six participants—students at UCLA—were randomly assigned to one of six conditions in a 2 (superior option: high or low) × 3 (attribute variation: design, functional, or brand) between-subjects design. Participants participated in the study online.
There were three sections to the study, and participants were told the three sections were two independent studies with the first section related to the third. The first and third sections were a “financial decision making study” involving resource allocation. The second section was a “consumer choice study” with two product choices.
In the first section (part 1 of the “financial decision-making study)” following Sivanthan et al. (2008), participants were presented with an updated version of Staw’s (1976) “A&S financial case” and told they were responsible for the allocation of $10 million of research and development (R&D) funds. The case described the company as having recently experienced a decline in earnings at least partially due to a lack of R&D funding. They were also told that, as chief financial officer, it was their job to allocate the additional funds to one of two departments (consumer products and industrial products). Respondents were given financial data for the two departments for the past 5 years and asked to allocate the entire $10 million to the department that would bring the greatest financial benefit. They were told that, on the basis of the financial information shown, they ought to be able to make a choice. They were then asked to draft a letter to the board explaining why they had allocated the funds to the division they had selected. Then, regardless of which division they chose, participants received 5 years of simulated profits and earnings information showing that the department they chose had performed poorly. This served as negative feedback on the initial decision.
Affirmation (or Not) through Choice
After completing that task, respondents moved onto the second section, the “consumer choice study” that was similar to the choice task in studies 1 and 2. The screens in this section looked different from those in the first and third sections—different font and color—so as to increase perception that it was for a different study. Respondents were given two choice tasks, each involving a choice between two options—two travel toothbrush holders or two pairs of sunglasses. In both choice tasks respondents were given four pieces of information—design (as depicted in the photograph of the product), price, level on a functional attribute (whether “with germicidal UV light bulb power that gets rid of bacteria on your toothbrush” for the toothbrush holder and whether “polarized to prevent glare” for the sunglasses) and the brand as presented with the brand name in its logo format. For the toothbrush holder the brands were Oral-B and Generic, while for the sunglasses the brands were Ray-Ban and Style Vegas. The photographs and brands were pretested to ensure that there was common agreement (over 90%) on which option was superior. The directions asked participants to assume that the two options were identical on all information not presented.
The choices always varied on price and one other attribute—either design, function, or brand depending on the condition. As in study 2 the other independent variable was whether the choice set favored selection of the high option—high design, high function, or high brand (superior high option) or favored selection of the lower option—low design, low function, or low (generic) brand (superior low option). This was manipulated through the prices assigned to the two choices. In the conditions favoring the high choice (high design, high function, or high brand), the high option was priced 1.05 times as high as the low option (5% price premium). In the condition favoring the low choice, the high option (high design, high function, or high brand) was priced 9.5 times as high as the low option (805% price premium).
In the third section, part 2 of the “financial decision-making study,” respondents were reminded of their initial selection and again shown the financial information that served as negative feedback. Again, following Sivanthan et al. (2008) respondents were then told that even more R&D funding was needed and that an additional $8 million at this time had been allocated to these two divisions. Again, as chief financial officer it was their job to allocate the additional funds to one of two departments. Unlike in the previous allocation decision, in this case respondents were allowed to divide up the $8 million rather than allocate it all to one division. As in previous studies (Brockner 1992; Sivanthan et al. 2008; Staw 1976), reinvestments in the initially chosen and failing division were used to measure escalation of commitment. Respondents were then asked to rate how they felt about themselves and their second decision on various 7-point scales, including how good they feel about themselves, how rational they felt they were, how satisfied they are with their decision, how confident they are in their decision, if they might regret the decision, if they feel responsible for the decision, how difficult it was to make the decision, and how complex was the decision. Respondents were also asked how much they felt their first allocation decision influenced their second allocation decision. Respondents were then asked to explain what they thought the studies were about and whether they thought the consumer choice study was related to the financial decision-making study. They then answered several demographic questions, filled out the 10-item centrality of visual product aesthetics (CVPA) scale (Bloch, Brunel, and Arnold 2003) and were then thanked for their participation.
As in study 2, we varied the price premium of the superior option in order to encourage choice of the superior option or the inferior option. And, as in study 2, while the majority of respondents made the desired choice, not all did. Across all six conditions, 96 of 326 (29%) of respondents did not make the choice encouraged by the set-up. The data from all 96 of these respondents were not included in the following analysis. Thus, the final sample used consists of 230 respondents. However, if these data had been included and categorized on the basis of actual choice (rather than on condition of desired choice), the results would remain the same.
Impact of Choice on Escalation of Commitment
Previous research (Sivanthan et al. 2008) finds that when a self-affirmation manipulation is given after negative feedback and before the second allocation in Staw’s (1976) “A&S Financial Case,” the amount of money allocated in the second choice to the same division as initially chosen is significantly less than after no self-affirmation. This demonstrates that self-affirmation reduces escalation of commitment. According to our framework, the choice of high (or low) design should be an appropriate substitute for the self-affirmation manipulation in this methodology. First we examine the effect of choice of the preferred, or “high,” option over the less-preferred option regardless of attribute of variation and find no effect (MHigh option = $3.18 million, MLow option = $3.46 million; F(1, 228) = 1.02, p = .31). Next we test for a main effect of attribute variation, whether design, function, or brand, and again find no effect (Mdesign = $3.15 million, Mfunction = $3.34 million, Mbrand = $3.40 million; F(2, 227) = .30, p = .74). We also find no main effect of the department selected in the first allocation decision (Mindustry = $3.35 million, Mconsumer = $3.23 million; F(1, 228) = .19, p = .66). We then examine a model that includes all two-way interactions of these three variables and find the only significant interaction is that of choice of preferred or less-preferred option and attribute variation (F(2, 220) = 3.54, p = .03). Given the lack of main effect or interaction effects for initial allocation selection, we now collapse our data across this variable. Next we examine the results for each attribute variation separately.
Indeed, after choice of high design, respondents allocate significantly less to the division they selected in the first choice than after choice of low design (MHigh design = $2.74 million, MLow design = $3.69 million; F(1, 68) = 3.89, p = .05). Please see figure 2.
No such effect is found with choice of high function or high brand. After choice of the known (high) brand, respondents are no less likely to show escalation of commitment than after choice of a generic brand although not significantly so (MHigh brand = $3.53 million, MLow brand = $3.20 million; F(1, 67) = .42, p = .52). Similarly, there are no significant differences in amount allocated in the second decision to the same area as in the first decision after choice of high function and low function (MHigh function = $3.25 million, MLow function = $3.47 million; F(1, 89) = .24, p = .62).
Response to Decision
When asked how they feel about the second allocation decision, respondents who selected the high design option tend to feel better about themselves and their allocation decision than do respondents who selected the low design option (good about self, rational in decision, satisfied with decision, confident made right allocation). See table 3. There are no differences in response to the second allocation decision between respondents who selected high versus low brand or high versus low function. Examining the differences between the two design conditions in the context of the other conditions reveals that the differences are driven more by elevated scores for the high design choosers and less to do with depressed scores by the low design choosers.
|Design variation||Brand variation||Function variation|
|Good feeling about self||5.3a||4.6||4.9||4.9||5.0||4.7|
|Rational in decision||5.5a||4.7||5.1||4.9||5.1||4.8|
|Satisfied with decision||5.5a||4.8||4.7||5.1||5.0||4.7|
|Confident made right allocation||5.1a||4.2||4.4||4.5||4.6||4.4|
|Regret allocation decision||3.1||3.4||3.3||3.0||3.4||3.5|
|Difficult to make decision||4.3||4.3||4.4||4.1||4.1||4.0|
|Allocation was complex||4.3||5.0a||4.8||4.7||4.5||4.7|
|First decision influenced second||4.9||4.8||4.9||5.3||4.9||5.1|
Centrality of Visual Product Aesthetics
We included an individual difference measure, the CVPA scale (Bloch et al. 2003), which measures how much an individual cares about aesthetics. Using a linear regression we examine the influence of this individual difference variable on allocation in the second decision and find it has no significant effect on how much respondents allocate to the initially chosen area, either when examining across attribute variations (design, brand, and function: β = −.24, p = .18) or, more relevantly, when examining only the design condition (β = −.31, p = .27).
In study 3, that choice of high design results in a lower allocation to the initially chosen area (consumer products or industrial products) rules out a possible explanation that choice of high design produces generally more positive response than self-affirmation. Thus, the differential response in study 3 to the second allocation decision seen between respondents who selected high and low design is further evidence of a self-affirming effect of choice of high design; respondents generally respond in a more self-assured and confident manner after choice of high design. Additionally, with study 3 we again isolate the effect to that of aesthetics and not simply all nonfunctional attributes, as choice of superior brand has no such effect. Study 3 therefore provides further evidence that there is something particular and universally appreciated about the attributes of aesthetics that sets it apart from others and that its choice affects a consumer’s sense of self.
We included the CVPA individual difference measure for two reasons. First, it allows us to observe whether the affirming effect of high design choice is universal or present only by a subset of respondents. Second, its inclusion allows us to address the overall importance of design as a universal value. That there is no difference in results across varying levels of this individual difference reveals that choice of high design is self-affirming for all individuals and not only those who acknowledge the importance of design in their choices. Moreover, this result also confirms aesthetics as a universal value; even for participants who do not apparently consider aesthetics of great importance, its choice leads to less escalation of commitment.
This research reveals that product choice can lead to self-affirmation. In particular, we find that product aesthetics is an attribute through which self-affirmation occurs. Study 1 demonstrates that the desire to affirm the self, at least in part, drives the choice of more aesthetic objects. Studies 2 and 3 reveal that this behavior is justified, as choosing a highly aesthetic object has the same effect on subsequent behavior as a self-affirmation manipulation. We have known for a while that goods provide consumers with more than just fulfillment of their apparent functionality and, moreover, that aesthetics, even when apparently without function, is incredibly important. These three studies indicate that design ought not to be treated the same as other product attributes such as price, functionality, or even other hedonic or enriched attributes and the results of these studies suggest just how different aesthetics may be from other attributes. Building on prior research on the beauty premium, materialism and consumption in response to threat, and aesthetics as a personal value it is evident that there is a more personal element that goes into thinking about the way a product looks—whether consumers are aware of it or not. It is so innate in us to appreciate beauty that the mere choice of a more attractive item can lead us to feel better about ourselves and, in turn, act in a less biased manner.
Thinking about our findings in the context of other research on self-affirmation, choice of high design is a unique form of affirmation in that it does not directly involve feedback or motivated thoughts about oneself, one’s performance on a task, or one’s values. This is what makes our finding so surprising but also valuable. Recently Sherman et al. (2009) have examined the role of awareness in an activity’s ability to affirm. They find that something can be a form of self-affirmation without the actor’s knowledge of its affirming benefits and, moreover, that being aware of the affirming effects of something can diminish its impact. We find it unlikely that consumers are aware of the self-affirming benefits of choice of high design. Therefore, discovery of this new form of affirmation adds to Sherman et al.’s finding and, moreover, Sherman et al.’s results suggest that choice of high design may be a particularly powerful form of affirmation precisely because its relationship to the self and one’s values is not obvious. Our results offer a new manner in which to affirm an individual’s sense of self that may be employed in research or outside the laboratory setting and that can be used likely without priming thoughts related to self, values, personal performance, or esteem. Such a manipulation may prove to be very valuable.
Adding to our knowledge of the beauty premium, we now understand that this bias exists for attractive products, just as for attractive people. This extension is fairly intuitive given the widespread, implicit, and seemingly innate manifestation of the beauty premium as well as the inherent connection between a person and her possessions. But this research also extends our understanding of the beauty premium in another direction; while previous research examined how perceptions of others are subject to appearance, in this research the impact is on self-related thought; thus, it is turned inward. That the mere choice of one product over another seems to affect security in one’s self and values is a remarkable twist on an interpersonal judgment theory.
As a further extension, the results of these three studies offer intuition for a possible mechanism behind the beauty premium in interpersonal judgments; the positive evaluations that result when a target is good looking may be the result of less-biased processing of information and an openness to alternative views. If people generally process information in a defensive manner, then they are likely predisposed to presume negative qualities about a person. However, when affirmed, this goes away, leading to less biased and likely more positive evaluations. The implication is that our more favorable impressions of good-looking people are, in fact, accurate, while our less favorable impressions of average or less good-looking people are the result of defensive processing.
These findings also offer a more optimistic view of materialism, conspicuous consumption, and consumption as a response to negative emotions. The behavior of using purchases to negate threats to the self seems unhealthy, and yet studies 2 and 3 suggest that there is merit to this. Traditionally research on self-affirmation has observed what occurs when respondents’ sense of self is threatened and then how people use self-affirmation to reduce the negative effects of the threat. Here (study 1) we were bolstering the self to prevent an unconscious desire to engage in self-affirmation. A natural extension of this is the propensity for “retail therapy” in which consumers buy (self-affirming) products when depressed. Previous research has focused on the strong relationship between addictive buying and low self-esteem (e.g. O’Guinn and Faber 1989; Roberts 1998)—investigating the extreme behavior as manifested in a select group. Our research points to the universality of purchase for the purpose of improving self-related feelings. Also, the implication of our research is that such activity is not erroneously driven and is valid.
Studies 2 and 3 reveal a distinction between aesthetics and other hedonic or enriched attributes. Comfort and ease of use, taste, and brand do not have the same self-affirming quality as design. It is not simply that “treating” oneself or going for the pleasurable option has this effect; it is specific to the choice of aesthetics. This finding is interesting in the context of work on universal values as it suggests a hierarchy whereby aesthetics seems to be more valuable or personal than other pleasure-related attributes. Similarly, while economics is a universal attribute (Vernon and Allport 1931) that could easily be represented in product choice though price, in all three studies we do not see a self-affirming effect related to this attribute. Again, this points to the uniqueness of aesthetics, even among universal values.
In several ways this research opens avenues for further exploration. It is also possible that the product category and its connection to feelings of self may moderate the relationship between choice and self-affirmation. It seems likely that choice in a product category with which the consumer strongly identifies is more amenable to self-affirmation than choice in a less self-relevant category. Similarly, it seems plausible that self-affirmation is not the only self-related emotion implicated in choice. Self-affirmation theory is similar to, though not the same as, Aronson’s (1968, 1999) self-consistency theory, which discusses self-esteem and dissonance. We focused on self-affirmation rather than self-esteem as the latter seems less relevant to the discussion at hand. While affirmation and esteem are closely related and often seem to be driven by similar attitudes and behaviors, one’s level of self-esteem is considered dependent on conscious cognitions and reflection upon the self (Nail, Misak, and Davis 2004). In contrast, the choice of highly aesthetic options in order to boost self-related feelings likely works at an unconscious level with little awareness or cognition. Of course it is possible that self-esteem may also both impact and be affected by choice of aesthetic options. Certainly our pretest in study 2 involving self-integrity measures suggests that more than one area of self-related thought may be implicated.
Finally, the dependent measures used—openness to counter-attitudinal arguments and (diminished) propensity to honor sunk costs—are positive and productive activities that, generally, improve decision-making. While we cannot directly measure affirmation of the self, that we find these results even with derived behavioral measures, implies that the effect is quite robust. And that the mere choice of one product over another affects both a person’s openness to a counter-attitudinal arguments and her propensity to invest in a failing course of action has implications beyond the field of marketing and consumer behavior. Regardless of the field where such a lesson may be implemented, be it politics, public policy, or organizational behavior, the implication is that aesthetics and the general look of a choice option are capable of affecting the outcome of both current and subsequent decisions.
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