Aug 16 2011

Brand Loyalty

Are you a Mac or PC? Do you have any strong feelings about this brand rivalry? Would you take it personally if your preferred brand was the target of criticism?

New research indicates that you would.

It is already established “textbook” psychology that people have egos – we have a self-image that we protect. We like to look at ourselves in a positive light and will engage in motivated reasoning, denial, and even rewriting history in order to protect that self-image. There is also what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error – we tend to explain the actions of others based upon internal or inherent factors, but we explain our own behavior based upon situational factors. For example, if you see a mother harshly discipline a child in public you might infer that she is an angry person or an impatient parent. But if you harshly discipline your own child in public you are likely to explain your behavior as an understandable reaction to the situation; your child was relentlessly disobedient and perhaps you were stressed and in a hurry.

In order words – we give ourselves every benefit of the doubt, while we tend to be quick to be judgmental about others.

The question of the new research is this – does this egocentric bias extend to brands to which we are loyal? How much do we internalize our brand choices? The researchers found that subjects would continue to rate their favorite brands (what they call self-connected brands)  highly, even after being presented with negative information about those brands. They interpreted a brand failure as a personal failure, and engaged all their defense mechanisms to protect the image of the brand to which they had identified.

Unlike with the self, however, brand loyalty has its limits. We are stuck with ourselves, but we can abandon a self-connected brand if we learn unacceptable negative information about it. So we will protect our self-image by protecting our self-connected brands, but if a brand goes too far then we protect ourselves by jettisoning the brand, perhaps feeling betrayed and deceived. We can engage situational factors to explain away our misplaced loyalty, once again protecting our self-image.

The same psychology extends to other entities – such as sports teams, political parties, geographic regions, religions and philosophies – anything to which we can self-identify. This all seems to be an extension of our tribal nature, our tendency to view the world as us vs them.

Politics in the US is rather polarized lately, so it is an excellent opportunity to watch this phenomenon in action. I often get involved in political discussions with friends in which one party or one politician is either passionately defended or attacked. I can’t help wondering – if the exact same situation occurred but to the other side, would this person be just as passionately arguing the other way? If, for example, what they are bitterly complaining about Obama were true of Bush would they be defending rather that criticizing the same behavior?

I have also noticed that the fundamental attribution error applies to these situations. If you like Obama then you are likely to explain any apparent failings through situational factors, while if you do not like him you are likely to invoke explanations that are about his beliefs and inherent weaknesses – while simultaneously reverting to situational factors to explain the exact same failings in Bush (or vice versa depending on your politics). So, Bush ran up the deficit because of a bad economy and the aftermath of 9/11, while Obama ran up the deficit because he is a socialist. Or, if you are so inclined, Bush ran up the deficit because of fiscal irresponsibility and incompetence, while Obama did so because he was saddled with two wars and a recession.

(Disclaimer – I am not making any of the above arguments myself, nor am I interested in analyzing the various reasons for the deficit or the relative virtues and vices of these two presidents, nor am I arguing for any kind of equivalence. I am just repeating the kinds of arguments I have heard from both sides. Of course I know that I probably just engaged your own political brand loyalty with these examples and many of you will not be able to resist defending your self-connected brand in the comments.)

Being aware of this strong human bias to defend anything to which we self-connect (not just our own literal selves) is empowering, in a metacognitive way. It potentially gives us another filter for our own thoughts and behaviors. Of course, this type of metacognition can get infinitely recursive – we can feel good about ourselves for being self-aware and not giving in to ego-protection, but feeling good about that is just another form of ego-gratification, and so on. We probably cannot get away from our fundamental psychology – but we can channel our biases in a healthy and productive way. So I guess it’s OK to feel good about being rational, even if doing so is a little bit irrational.

Now excuse me as I sign off my PC and enjoy a diet Coke.

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