Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why we love independence, individuality, and Starbucks

Why we love independence, individuality, and Starbucks
Last year, I drove from Austin, where I live, to San Antonio to do a reading for my new book Smart Thinking at a great independent bookstore called The Twig Book Shop.  As I drove the 60 miles between cities I was struck once again by how the highway landscape was probably nearly identical to the one I would see near any metropolitan area.  There were Home Depots, PetSmarts, Targets, and of course Starbucks all along the route (not to mention Macaroni Grills, TGIFs and McDonalds to feed the hungry). 
Why do the chain stores rule? 
Much of this, of course, has nothing to do with psychology.  It is hard to run a small business.  There are lots of decisions you have to make from scratch.  And one bad year or a downturn in the local economy can wipe out years of hard work (not to mention a lifetime of savings).  Big companies have the benefit that bad sales at one location can be absorbed as long as sales in other locations remain strong. 
But there is an element of psychology in the success of chain stores as well.  This issue was explored in a paper in the January, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Shigehiro Oishi, Felicity Miao, Minkyung Koo, Jason Kisling, and Kate Ratliff.
They started with an interesting hypothesis.  Americans prize individuality, but they also prize mobility.  We cherish the opportunity to move to a new city or a new state to advance our careers or just to get a change of scenery. 
The researchers suggested that when people move frequently, they may end up attaching themselves to chain stores.  The anxiety of moving may lead people to prefer familiar stores over the unique businesses that they may encounter.  This proposal was tested in a number of ways.
First, the researchers asked a broad question using census and corporate data.  If people tend to prefer chain stores more strongly when they move around a lot, then states in which people move frequently should have more chain stores than states where people move less often.  The researchers obtained the number of outlets of a variety of chain stores (ranging from Home Depot to Kay Jewelers) from annual reports filed by the companies.  Data on how often people move around was obtained from the 2000 census.  Using the statistical technique of multiple regression, the researchers looked at the combined influence of residential mobility (how much people move around), median income, and population of each state as predictors of the number of outlets for these chains.  They found that the amount of mobility really did predict the number of outlets of chains in a given state.  Population also affected this number (not surprisingly).  Median income of families was not a predictor of the number of outlets of chain stores.
So far so good.  In states where people move around a lot, there are more outlets of chain stores than in states where people don’t move around so much.
But still, there are lots of potential reasons for that.  For example, states where people move around a lot tend to be bigger states overall (like Colorado).  Perhaps having lots of open space makes it easier for chain stores to build big outlets.
In another study, the authors tested individuals.  They brought 100 college students from the east coast of the US and had them imagine that they were shopping on a trip to California.  They were given the choice between shopping at a chain store (Whole Foods) or a local grocery store (Fresh Mart) for 14 different types of stores.  The researchers measured how often each participant moved growing up as well as a number of other personality variables.  Even taking into account these other variables, the number of times that people moved was positively related to the number of times that people picked the chain store over the local store in this task.  That is, moving a lot increased preference for chain stores.
These two studies are still correlational.  That is, you can’t experimentally assign people to move a lot or to stay in one place.  In the rest of the studies in this paper, the researchers induced a feeling of mobility to look at its influence on preference for familiar things.
In one of these studies, participants either wrote about how they would feel if they landed their dream job and that job required them to move every 6 months for several years.  A second group wrote about how they would feel if they landed their dream job, which required them to live in the same town for several years.  Finally, a control group just wrote about a typical day in their life.
After that, participants were exposed to a number of unfamiliar faces five times.  Research on mere exposure has found that people quickly come to prefer things they have been exposed to compared to those that are unfamiliar.  After seeing these faces, participants rated how much they liked a series of faces.  Some were ones they had seen before, while others were new faces they had not seen before. 
Participants who were primed to think about moving around a lot showed a larger preference for the familiar over the unfamiliar faces than those who were primed to think about living in the same place (or people in the control condition).  The researchers counted the number of anxiety-related words people used in the writing they did at the start of the study.  The number of anxiety related words was a good predictor of the strength of the preference for familiar over unfamiliar faces.
Ok.  I said a lot here.  What does all of this mean?
The independent lifestyle that we often lead in the United States creates great freedom.  But that freedom comes at the cost of our connection to community.  When we move from place to place, we disrupt our connections to family and friends.  We also force ourselves to adapt to a new house and a new environment.
In those times, we tend to attach ourselves to things that are familiar as an anchor.  There are lots of things that we might use for that anchor.  One of them is the places we shop.  Shopping at a familiar chain store after moving provides a sense of balance to counteract the chaotic feelings we might have as we try to re-root ourselves in a new home.