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Essays on Social Comparison Processes in Consumer Behavior

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Social comparison is a ubiquitous part of social life. People compare themselves to others to establish and maintain a sense of social hierarchy and structure, to develop and sustain interpersonal relationships, and even to help understand themselves. In this dissertation, I focus on how the referent of social comparison – namely, whether consumers are comparing themselves to close or distant others – can influence subsequent decision processes and consumption behavior. In particular, I examine how social comparison with close versus distant others can have opposing effects on mindsets and divergent thinking (essay 1) and preference for innovative products (essay 2). Essay 1 explores the apparent tautology in past research that assimilating with others leads to perceptions of greater similarity and that differentiating from others leads to perceptions of greater difference. In essay 1, I show instead that the act of differentiating from close others can sometimes increase perceptions of similarity. Across 4 studies, I propose and show that since close others play a defining role in the development and management of consumers’ self-concepts, people have an automatic default to assimilate with close others. As a result, thinking about how one is different from close others feels metacognitively difficult. This difficulty in differentiation leads to a rebound effect. In contrast to differentiating from distant others which increases perceptions of differences, the mere act of trying to differentiate from close others leads to increased perceptions of similarity. As a result, while differentiating from distant others can evoke a differences mindset and increase divergent thinking, differentiating from close others leads to a similarity mindset and reduces divergent thinking. In essay 2, I explore when and how marketing materials that encourage consumers to differentiate from others can reduce preference for innovative products. One common strategy that marketers employ to motivate consumers to buy innovative products is to encourage consumers to “think different.” This is because past research has shown that differentiating from others can broaden thinking and, in turn, increase understanding and liking of innovative products. However, I posit this strategy can backfire when the referent is a close other. Past research considered hypothetical or distant others where differentiation feels easy and fluent. In contrast, when people engage in social comparison with close others, assimilating is the default. In this way, differentiating from (vs. merely considering or assimilating with) a close other might feel disfluent. Feeling disfluency around close others is unexpected and may increase the need for the comfort of familiarity, thus reducing consumer preferences for novel and innovative products. Thus, beyond feeling difficult and limiting divergent thinking (essay 1), the disfluency in differentiating from close others increases the need for familiarity, reducing preference for innovative products. We present four studies and a pilot in support of this view and conclude with highlighting the relevance of these findings to social media contexts where differentiation from close others is common.

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