Carlson School of Management News

FACULTY RESEARCH: The Threat of Being Stereotyped Can Deter Consumer Purchases

Monday, March 28, 2011

Negative stereotypes can be terrible for business. A new study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that consumers who feel anxious about being judged through the lens of a negative stereotype are likely to forgo purchases.

Kathleen VohsKathleen D. Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School, and co-authors Hakkyun Kim (Concordia University, Canada) and Kyoungmi Lee (Yonsei University, Korea) found that a potential buyer, aware of negative associations held about a group to which he or she belongs, may experience apprehension when transacting with someone from outside this group. This nervousness detrimentally impacts purchasing decisions. "People naturally withdraw from situations where they anticipate being stereotyped," says Vohs. "They fear being duped or inadvertently reinforcing the negative association."

The researchers conducted three experiments. The first focused on women's feelings when interacting with potential financial advisors. When predisposed to conditions meant to remind participants of the stereotype that women are less competent at math than men, women reported feeling more anxious about interacting with a male financial advisor and less inclined to procure financial services.

The second experiment tested these findings in an automobile repair context. When asked to report their gender before seeking a car repair, women were more likely to feel anxiety when contemplating a transaction with a male technician. Vohs adds, "Consumers don't have to believe the stereotype; they just have to be aware that the stereotype exists to experience the threat. The actual behavior of the sales person may have little effect."

This research provides some of the first evidence that the presence of negative stereotypes plays an important role in consumer judgments. These findings have practical implications for marketers, who may take care to avoid using advertising content that might trigger thoughts or associations of a negative stereotype in potential costumers.

Additionally, while marketers cannot completely control for which perceived stereotypes may cause anxiety in potential buyers in all cases at all times, they may be able to mitigate stereotype threat -- with a soothing scent. In the third experiment in the study, researchers found that they could eradicate the stereotype threat effect by wafting vanilla scents into a consumer's environment.

Kathleen Vohs teaches in the Fundamentals of Marketing program for Carlson Executive Education. For more information on this program, click here.

Reprinted with permission of the Institute for Research in Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. More information on the Institute can be found at www.carlsonschool.umn.edu/marketinginstitute.

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