Do you prefer cats or dogs? Why self-expression increases giving

Do you prefer dogs or cats? Vanilla or chocolate? The answers to these simple questions reveal a little something about who we are and what we like. We want to answer them because they’re fun, and because it broadcasts a bit of information about our personality, our values, and our desires.

Two people next to each other, one holds a cat the other holds a dog.

But there is also a serious side to these questions, which Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger explains in a new paper published in the Journal of Marketing titled, “Penny for Your Preferences: Leveraging Self-Expression to Encourage Small Pro-Social Gifts.” The paper looks at how businesses can use this intrinsic desire for self-expression to get consumers to give more money, whether it’s tipping the barista a little extra or donating more dollars to a charitable cause. He and his co-authors call it “the dueling preferences approach,” which frames the act of giving as a choice.

“It’s about understanding the context. Pick a choice that the audience cares about and feels self-expressive,” says Berger. “Caring about chocolate and vanilla ice cream is not the most important domain in the world, but it’s something people feel says something about them. The same with dogs and cats. There are cat people and there are dog people who feel like it says something about them. We can use that to motivate behavior even in an unrelated domain.

“There’s lots of research that clearly shows that if you’re the type of person who drives a BMW, that’s a desirable identity for you. You’re going to pay more for a BMW than someone who doesn’t hold that [identity]. It’s clear we care about identity. It’s clear that identity motivates behavior,” he says.

“If I were a marketer, if I were a manager, if I were a charity director, I would think about how to harness self-expression. I would think about the right opportunity to give people the right choice. How can I motivate my audience to give by providing them an opportunity to express their preferences?”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.