To Know Me Is to Know My Stuff

"Stop dressing like a slob."

"You're the kind of person who's way into trolls and elves."

"I'm a brown-noser."

"I love you."

Some people might have trouble verbalizing those thoughts, but this holiday season you could be saying them anyway -- whether through a fancy outfit given to a frumpy dresser, a gift inspired by the recipient's mantle-top gnome figurines, or an extravagant gift to a boss or to a prospective life partner.

Psychologists and marketers say the gifts we give and the objects we own may say more than we realize -- and often can be windows into our personalities.

"What you own are the extensions of yourself," says Mirriam Tatzel, a consumer psychologist and professor of human development at Empire State College in New York.

"All objects have some symbolic meaning," she adds. "The things that we wear and the things that we buy say something about you. ... The car you drive, all of it, is in some ways a reflection of personality and lifestyle."

Many people understand this on an intuitive level, but to the marketing industry it's a science. Whether you realize it or not, the industry likely has used knowledge of your music, video, book and product purchases -- as well as the demographics of where you live -- to figure out what type of person you are and how to sell you other stuff you'll likely fall for.

Marketer's Method

If you're still looking for the perfect gift for that hard-to-shop-for loved one, maybe you can take a page out of the marketer's book. Since marketers already likely have targeted your gift recipient with direct mail, it might pay to start with what's on their coffee table.

"You can probably tell a lot about somebody by what catalogs they get," Tatzel says.

Next, look around the room. Check out the knick-knacks to get an idea of what the person likes, and take down book or music titles so you can look them up later via online merchants, Tatzel suggests. Such merchants can offer basic market research by displaying other items commonly purchased by people who bought the same book or album.

Look at the person: Personal style -- such as how someone dresses, how they wear their hair, what car they drive and what magazines they subscribe to -- also gives obvious personality cues, marketers say.

More broadly, it might pay to ask: "Is the person I'm dealing with a 'thinker' who likes details and books; an 'achiever' who likes time-savers and luxury items; or an 'experiencer' who likes excitement, cutting-edge fashion and products that help them stand out from the crowd? Or do they have another type of personality?"

What You Buy and Where You Live

These are the types of questions that marketing pros like Carrie Hollenberg ask. Hollenberg is a senior consultant with SRI Consulting Business Intelligence's VALS program, which claims to have performed psychological tests on hundreds of subjects to match psychology to product-purchasing tendencies.

"We have identified eight basic types of U.S. adult consumers, and if you look at the types of media they buy and the products they own, they're very different," Hollenberg says. "If you know just one product a person owns, you really don't know what they are, but if you know enough products, you can make an educated guess."

Besides "thinkers," "achievers" and "experiencers," VALS' eight types of consumers include "innovators," "believers," "strivers," "makers" and "survivors." Thumbnail descriptions of the personality types can be found at SRIC-BI's VALS Web site (http://www.sric-bi.com/VALS/types.shtml).

Another market research tool, Claritas Inc.'s PRIZM NE program, breaks down 66 lifestyle segments based upon census and other data, and uses the motto, "You are where you live."

Enter a person's ZIP code at the company's Web site (http://www.clusterbigip1.claritas.com/MyBestSegments/Default.jsp?ID=20), and up pops a list of the five most common lifestyle segments for the area, and objects people in those segments tend to like. For example, people who fit the "bohemian mix" demographic supposedly shop at Banana Republic, read Vanity Fair and watch "Friends" in syndication.

"People living in one of our segments called 'shotguns and pickups,' they're not going to be getting Banana Republic catalogs," says Stephen Moore, a Claritas spokesman. "They're going to be getting Field and Stream."

Not everyone in a particular ZIP code will fit into one of the top five segments, but many will, Moore says -- though the company sometimes gets complaints from people who do not like to be profiled.

"The thing about people by nature is that they don't want to be data varieties," he says, "when in fact, the way they live, they categorize themselves. … That's what PRIZM is built on, the idea of birds of a feather flocking together."

Wrong Ideas

But there can be pitfalls.

For one thing, marketing demographics often are designed to generalize for large swatches of people, not individuals, meaning a person may not fit all the details in a template.

For another thing, considering too few objects can lead to mistakes because people of different personality types can enjoy the same things for different reasons.

"'Thinkers' go to the gym because they know from reading that it's healthy to be active," Hollenberg says. "'Experiencers' go because they want to look sexy and for the social interaction at the gym. 'Achievers' go because they know it's healthy, but it's also a reward for their hard work at their job and taking care of their kids."

Even when multiple possessions are considered, patterns still can be misinterpreted.

"If you … see they like jazz musicians A, B and C, you may think that they'll like musicians D, E and F," says Russell Belk, N. Eldon Tanner professor of business administration at the University of Utah. "But they may be classifying them in a different way. They may like A, B and C because they're all San Francisco musicians. … So it's fraught with difficulty."

It also might seem easy to see what a specialized hobbyist such as a stamp collector might like. But people should remember that the collector is well aware of pricing, and might regard the gift as naïve or predictable.

"It can also be a minefield because, for example, if I'm a collector, part of the thrill is the hunt," says Cele Otnes, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies gift-giving and receiving. "If you take the hunt away as a giver, you might diminish the joy of as if I'd found those objects my own way."

Perhaps it might be safer to draw conclusions with other types of people. After all, Belk says, the most materialistic people and young people living through increasingly "commodified childhoods" often can give themselves self-definitions through their possessions.

Changing Habits

Still, object profiling might fail with very young kids, especially if you haven't talked to them in awhile.

"I'm not exactly sure it [a child's toy preference] is often reflective of one's personality, but more reflective of one's interests. These interests for children will change over time," says Jeffrey Derevensky, a professor of applied child psychology and psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, who has worked as a marketing consultant to toy companies.

"If a child plays with toy trucks or toy fire engines when he's young, it's not predictive that he'll grow up and become a fireman," Derevensky says.

Children aren't the only ones subject to change. Adults suddenly can change hair, clothes, tastes and possessions during transformative events such as a graduation, a divorce or a midlife crisis, Belk says. People also can change gradually, he adds.

"As we get older, relationships and gifts mean something to us because of who they're from rather than what they are," says Belk, whose specialty is consumer behavior and people's relationships with their possessions.

But though people can change, it can be a bad idea to think you can change them with a gift, experts say. If you give them a treadmill, a fancy suit or a book with personal improvement in mind, the recipient might conclude you think they're too fat, too slovenly or too dumb.

Psychology of Situations

Other social situations also play into a gift's symbolism. An extravagant or intimate gift can be fine for a lover, but a boss or an acquaintance might suspect ulterior motives.

Tatzel believes possessions and gifts can say so much that she suggests dating services might be more successful by matching people through the products they prefer. But possessions and gifts also can highlight incompatibility.

"It could be something they really don't like," Tatzel says. "That could be a signal that it [a budding friendship or romance] is not going to be a good fit: You think, 'Why in the world would they get me that awful thing?' You can develop bad feelings between people on the basis of gifts that would seem to be insensitive."

Sometimes, it may be wiser to keep emotional distance.

"That's why gift baskets were invented," Tatzel says.

For the most personal gifts, marketing tricks may be no substitute for the insight intimacy brings.

"Even a furtive glance at a store window is something that, if we're really paying attention to somebody, we should pick up on," Belk says.

"Gift giving in that ideal context is almost magical wish fulfillment," he adds. "The gift giver ideally knows without our saying … what we want by looking deeply into our heart and knowing better than we'd know ourselves.

"Perhaps this gets started, this magical motif, fairly early in childhood," Belk says. "I guess you can see that same myth being enacted with children's wishes that Santa will bring them some wonderful object."

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