Shoppers often prefer majority-endorsed goods, but new research shows that lonely consumers aren't always moved by consensus-related cues

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PROBLEM: In spite of the proliferation of social networks, many feel alone and isolated. A 2006 study found that nearly a quarter of Americans felt as though they had no one to discuss important matters with. How does this worsening phenomenon influence consumer behavior?

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METHODOLOGY: Researchers Jing Wang of the University of Iowa, Juliet Zhu of the University of British Columbia, and Baba Shiv of Stanford University looked into how lonely people are affected by social consensus information. In three experiments, they asked participants to evaluate products based on descriptions that included the percentage of previous consumers that liked the products.

RESULTS: People who weren't lonely tended to choose majority-endorsed products or items preferred by 80 percent of previous consumers. Loners, on the contrary, favored minority-endorsed products that were liked by only a fifth of previous consumers. Interestingly, though lonely people don't tend to conform, they also don't want to advertise their minority status. They opted for popular products in settings where their preferences were open to others.

CONCLUSION: Lonely individuals behave differently in the marketplace than people with strong social networks. They generally stray from the norm, but they may conform when in public.

SOURCE: The full study, "The Lonely Consumer: Loner or Conformer?" is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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