Self-Expression Cues in Product Rating Distributions: When People Prefer Polarizing Products

Self-Expression Cues in Product Rating Distributions: When People Prefer Polarizing Products

By
Bella Rozenkrants, S. Christian Wheeler, Baba Shiv
Journal of Consumer Research. December
1, 2017, Vol. 44, Issue 4, Pages 759-777

Previous research has shown that material goods can help people self-express, either because the products are themselves self-expressive (e.g., a band t-shirt) or because the products are associated with a desired group. This article examines a new signal of self-expressiveness: whether the product is polarizing—that is, whether some people strongly like the product and other people strongly dislike the product. Eight studies examine how polarization and its associated indicator in the online domain (a bimodal distribution of user star ratings) affects consumer preferences. The results indicate that polarizing products are perceived to be more self-expressive and to serve as stronger indicators of one’s tastes and personality. As a result, people find products with bimodal rating distributions to be more desirable when they experience temporary or chronic low self-concept clarity. Further, people evaluate products with bimodal distributions more favorably in consumption contexts in which self-expression is important. These effects emerge when the bimodal distribution pertains to a self-expressive attribute (e.g., style) but not when it pertains to a non-self-expressive attribute (e.g., quality). Last, the effect is especially strong when people have the motivation to express an individual- rather than group-level identity. Hence, polarizing products are seen as vehicles for individual self-expression.