Culture & Society

What Do We Really Want?

A new study examines the battle between idealized attitudes and those we actually have.

July 20, 2017

| by Martin J. Smith


A woman looks at a case of desserts

Good news: Our desired attitudes (don’t eat unhealthy things) affects behavior more than our actual attitudes (that looks delicious). | iStock/Choja

If you crave cheesecake, but also want to lose weight, you already understand that sometimes there’s a conflict between your actual attitude and your desired attitude toward the high-calorie dessert. A dieter who loves it might want to love it less.

That discrepancy between actual and desired attitudes is among the topics explored in a paper coauthored by Stanford Graduate School of Business marketing professor S. Christian Wheeler that concludes your desired attitudes can affect your behavior just as much, or more, than your actual attitudes.

Wheeler, a consumer behavior researcher, conducted four studies with other researchers to gauge how people’s actual attitudes and desired attitudes govern their actions. Each study focused on a central question:

If someone says they have a positive attitude toward McDonald’s, does that actually predict that they’re likely to eat there?

Yes, a conclusion that affirmed previous behavioral studies. But that’s not the whole story. If you like McDonald’s but desire to have a negative attitude, that negative desired attitude also predicts your behavior. “We typically look to people’s attitudes to predict behavior,” Wheeler says, “but we may not be accurate if we ignore how people desire to feel about the attitude object.”

If someone supports Hillary Clinton or gay marriage, for example, are they likely to seek out information that affirms their attitude?

Yes, but Wheeler says the study also showed that “people sometimes desire to have different attitudes than what they actually hold.” For example, if you wish you liked Hillary Clinton more than you do, you are likely to seek out favorable information about her, even if your actual attitude is less favorable. “One way to think about the study is that people are deliberately constructing their information environments in order to reach their desired evaluations, which in some cases can mean undermining their actual attitudes.”

If presented with two equally flawed arguments — one which concludes that the death penalty deters crime, and one which concludes it doesn’t — is someone more likely to believe the one that affirms their desired attitudes?

Yes, according to the study: “Notably, people evaluated information that was consistent with their desired attitudes as more credible than information that was inconsistent with their desired attitudes, and this relationship was stronger as people’s commitment to their desired attitudes increased.” Adds Wheeler: “People can look at the same evidence and evaluate it differently, depending on the attitude they want to have.”

If someone doesn’t like something, in this case coffee, as much as they want to like it, will they try to make it more desirable, such as adding sweeteners and cream?

Yes. “These results may suggest that one way people might pursue their desired attitudes is by attempting to change the attitude object itself.”

“This is more than a rhetorical exercise,” states the paper, which Wheeler coauthored with Kenneth G. DeMarree of the University at Buffalo, Cory J. Clark of Florida State, Pablo Briñol of Spain’s Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and Richard E. Petty of Ohio State.

“Previous work has shown that discrepancies between actual and desired attitudes cause discomfort,” Wheeler says. “It’s a tension people are motivated to reduce. People don’t like having discrepancies in their attitudes. So we wanted to examine the effects of that. Do people act and think differently because of those discrepancies?”

The results of the four studies pointed to a general conclusion: “We found that people’s desired attitudes predicted [their] behavioral intentions, information seeking, biased information processing, and overt behavior, all above any influence of their actual attitudes. Perhaps surprisingly, overall, desired attitudes were more predictive of these outcomes than were actual attitudes.”

People can look at the same evidence and evaluate it differently, depending on the attitude they want to have.
S. Christian Wheeler

Of course, Wheeler says, reality sometimes trumps desires. You may wish you liked your job more than you do, and you may find ways to make it more palatable, “but maybe your job really is bad.” Or you may want to eat more broccoli because you know it’s good for you, but if you dislike the taste there may be no way to convince yourself to eat it. “There are reality constraints that can limit the extent to which we can shift our actual attitudes, which is why discrepancies can persist,” he says.

How does all that research translate into the consumer marketplace? Wheeler says the first and fourth studies, in particular, underscore the importance of understanding a consumer’s desired attitude toward a product as a way to predict their behavior. And the fourth study suggests that marketers can adapt products to meet consumers’ desired attitudes, or consumers can change their tastes to achieve a desired attitude.

Alcohol and tobacco companies add fruity flavors to their products to appeal to people who want to like their products but don’t like the taste, for example. Also, a consumer’s actual preferences can evolve to match their desired preferences. “You may want to like peaty scotches or hoppy IPAs, but maybe you haven’t yet developed a taste for them,” Wheeler says. “Acquired tastes are examples of when people successfully shift their actual attitudes more in line with their desired attitudes.”

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