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The Impact of Informal Groups (Autumn 2016)

Curator: Jennifer J. Argo

The past two decades have seen an increase in attention directed toward understanding the role of interpersonal influence in the consumer context. A large body of this research has focused on one-to-one interactions wherein a single individual influences another individual (e.g., a salesperson, a fellow consumer, a spouse). However, another, smaller stream of interpersonal influence has focused on the impact of various sized “informal groups” on the individual (i.e., a many-to-one interaction). These informal groups are unique in the sense that they need not be formally defined, composed of known others, physically present, or even motivated to intentionally influence others. Instead, as reflected in the collection of articles selected for this curation, these groups are composed of various numbers of individuals whose actions, taken together, create a shared influence on a single consumer.

The first three articles explore the impact of a physically present informal group. However, these groups differ in terms of their composition (i.e., containing either a group of known others or strangers) and in whether the group members are actively sharing the same experiences as the focal consumer (Ariely and Levav 2000Zhou and Soman 2003) or not (O’Guinn, Tanner, and Maeng 2015). Taken together, these articles reveal some of the nuances that exist in the influence of physically present informal groups.

In the first article, Ariely and Levav explore natural settings where a consumer makes a choice that is directly influenced by the choices of others within the group. In particular, when engaging in sequential decision-making (i.e., one consumer makes a choice followed by a second, and so on) the authors find that consumers will trade off maximizing their personal satisfaction in order to increase group variety seeking. The consequence of these choices is that only the first consumer within the sequential order makes a satisfying product choice.

The second paper explores the impact of the number of individuals who comprise the informal group (i.e., fellow patrons sharing a queue). Specifically, Zhou and Soman explore how the number of consumers in a queue behind a focal consumer influences the focal individual’s feelings, and his/her decision to remain in or leave the queue. Drawing from social comparison theory, the authors demonstrate that as the number of people behind an individual in a queue increases, the individual uses this information to determine that s/he is doing better than the others behind them in line. This decreases the likelihood that the individual will leave the queue and increases felt positive affect. In contrast to Ariely and Levav, where an interaction occurs amongst the members of the informal group and a focal consumer, in Zhou and Soman no such interaction transpires. Here, the informal group—and its influence—only exist because the consumers in the queue all share a single common goal.

Unlike the first two articles, O’Guinn, Tanner, and Maeng focus on the influence of informal groups that do not directly share in the focal consumer’s experience. In particular, these authors study how social crowdedness (i.e., social density) within a store can affect perceptions of social status. Across several studies, the authors demonstrate that when the number of consumers who comprise an informal group (i.e., a crowd) is high, an individual perceives a store to be of lower social status. Ultimately, this decreases the amount of money s/he is willing to pay.

In the final two articles, the notion of an informal group is least apparent in the sense that no one else is ever physically present. Instead, focal consumers use “markers” that signal interpersonal influence from multiple others. First, He and Bond (2015) study how consumers respond to social information in the context of online WOM rating distributions. These distributions exist because of the many consumers who post reviews, and provide individuals with unique information about whether these other consumers have consistent or dispersive opinions about a product. The authors propose that when faced with WOM information that is dispersed (i.e., there are a lot of varying opinions), consumers may view the source of this inconsistency as stemming from the product or from the reviewers. When is it attributed to the product, dispersion leads to negative product reactions; when it is attributed to the reviewers, the reactions are more favorable.

The final article in this curation explores how a simple cue in the environment can remind a consumer about others and demonstrates how this, in turn, impacts behavior. Thus, different from the other papers, in this article there is never any direct information about the informal group (e.g., who it is, how many people are in the group, what the group members think). Rather, consumers use the state of a product to derive social information. In particular, drawing from research on negative contamination, Di Muro and Noseworthy (2013) explore the implications of money’s physical appearance (i.e., whether it appears worn or new) on consumer spending. They find that when money appears worn, it cues a consumer that others have touched it. This cue that the money is contaminated disgusts individuals, and they seek to divest themselves of the money more quickly.

While all of the articles in this curation explore the impact that informal groups can have on a single consumer, they all tackle the question of how many-to-one contexts can be impactful in unique but meaningful ways.


Sequential Choice in Group Settings: Taking the Road Less Traveled and Less Enjoyed 
Dan Ariely   
Jonathan Levav   
   
Many individual decisions take place in a group context wherein group members voice their choices sequentially. In this article we examine the impact of this dynamic decision process on individuals' choices and satisfaction with their outcomes. We propose that choices reflect a balancing of two classes of goals: goals that are strictly individual and goals that are triggered by the existence of the group. The latter sometimes results in choices that undermine personal satisfaction and increase regret. We find support for goal balancing in three studies in which we tracked consumers' orders of dishes and drinks. In the Lunch study we found that real groups (tables) choose more varied dishes than would be expected by random sampling of the population of all individual choices across all tables. The Beer study demonstrates that this group-level variety seeking is attributable to the interaction-implicit or explicit-among group members, and can be dissipated when the group is forced to "disband" and its members make strictly individual choices. Finally, the Wine study demonstrated that individual choices in a group context are also aimed at satisfying goals of information gathering and self-presentation in the form of uniqueness.

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Looking Back: Exploring the Psychology of Queuing and the Effect of the Number of People Behind
Rongrong Zhou  
Dilip Soman  
 
Queues are a ubiquitous phenomenon. This research investigates consumers' affective experiences in a queue and their decisions to leave the queue after having spent some time in it (reneging). In particular, we find in our first two studies that, as the number of people behind increases, the consumer is in a relatively more positive affective state and the likelihood of reneging is lower. While a number of explanations may account for this effect, we focus on the role of social comparisons. In particular, we expect consumers in a queue to make downward comparisons with the less fortunate others behind them. We propose that three types of factors influence the degree of social comparisons made and thus moderate the effect of the number behind: (a) queue factors that influence the ease with which social comparisons can be made, (b) individual factors that determine the personal tendency to make social comparisons, and (c) situational factors that influence the degree of social comparisons through the generation of counterfactuals. Across three studies, we find support for each moderating effect. We conclude with a discussion on theoretical implications and limitations, and we propose avenues for future research.

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Turning to Space: Social Density, Social Class, and the Value of Things in Stores
Thomas Clayton O'Guinn 
Robin J. Tanner
Ahreum Maeng 
 
This article is about social space and material objects for sale within that space. We draw primarily on Goffman's (1971) concepts of use space and possession territories to predict that as the social density of a given space increases, inferences of the subjective social class and income of people in that space fall. Eight studies confirm that this is indeed the case, with the result holding even for stick figures, thus controlling for typical visual indicators of social class such as clothing or jewelry. Furthermore, these social class inferences mediate a relationship between social density and product valuation, with individuals assessing both higher prices and a greater willingness to pay for products presented in less crowded contexts. This effect of inferred class on product valuation is explained by status-motivated individuals' desire to associate with higher-status people. To the best of our knowledge, this research is the first to reveal the link between social density, status inferences, and object valuations. As such, it makes a novel contribution to what has come to be known in sociology as the topological turn: a renewed focus on social space.

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Why Is the Crowd Divided? Attribution for Dispersion in Online Word of Mouth
Stephen X. He
Samuel D. Bond 
 
The widespread availability of online word of mouth (WOM) enables modern consumers to assess not only the opinions of others about products and services, but also the extent to which those opinions are consistent or dispersive. Despite longstanding calls for greater understanding of mixed opinions, existing evidence is inconclusive regarding effects of WOM dispersion, and theoretical accounts have relied primarily on the notion of reference dependence. Extending prior work, this research proposes an attribution-based account, in which consumer interpretation of WOM dispersion depends on the extent to which tastes in a product domain are perceived to be dissimilar, so that dispersion can be attributed to inconsistency in reviewer preferences rather than the product itself. Across four experimental studies, participants presented with online rating distributions were more tolerant of dispersion in taste-dissimilar product domains than taste-similar product domains, and the difference was driven by underlying attributions. Together, these findings expand current understanding of WOM, social distributions, and risk perception, by revealing distinct pathways through which consumers respond to differences of opinion. In addition, they suggest the opportunity to proactively influence the manner in which dispersion is perceived, highlighting its positive connotations while diminishing its association with risk.

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Money Isn't Everything, but It Helps If It Doesn't Look Used: How the Physical Appearance of Money Influences Spending
Fabrizio Di Muro 
Theodore J. Noseworthy 
 
Despite evidence that currency denomination can influence spending, researchers have yet to examine whether the physical appearance of money can do the same. This is important because smaller denomination bills tend to suffer greater wear than larger denomination bills. Using real money in the context of real purchases, this article demonstrates that the physical appearance of money can override the influence of denomination. The reason being, people want to rid themselves of worn bills because they are disgusted by the contamination from others, whereas people put a premium on crisp currency because they take pride in owning bills that can be spent around others. This suggests that the physical appearance of money matters more than traditionally thought, and like most things in life, it too is inextricably linked to the social context. The results suggest that money may be less fungible than people think.

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