Impression Management: Do You See What I See?

What male and female coupon clippers tell us about our need to avoid leaving a bad impression
A man seeing his reflection

The essentials

Judging by how they use discount coupons, consumers worry about leaving bad impressions of themselves. The trouble is, they generally overestimate the impressions people develop, says Laurence Ashworth, Associate Professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Marketing.

Do people avoid buying products that they believe would make them look cheap or bad? And, if so, are they making the right decision?

Queen's School of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Laurence Ashworth has done considerable research in the area of impression management, the conscious or sub-conscious process by which people try to influence how others think about them. In a School of Business research presentation, Ashworth discussed the challenges of trying to determine if and when people engage in impression management through their purchasing decisions.

While there is considerable research into how people attempt to project a positive impression through their purchases, he said, there is much less research into how to avoid leaving a poor impression, mainly because it is more difficult to tease out.

Coupon clippers

Ashworth has tried to fill that gap. In one series of experiments, Ashworth asked participants (university students) to imagine they were at a restaurant on a first date with someone of the opposite sex. Some were “given” 10-percent-off coupons and others 50-percent-off coupons. “Coupons create impression management concerns,” Ashworth said, “because they are overt, deliberate attempts to save money. And they’re less ambiguous than discounts.”

Ashworth found that males refused to use the 10-percent-off coupons, though they were more open to use the 50-percent-off coupons. There was no effect with the female participants; they were willing to use any coupons.

In a second experiment, participants were not given any choice: some had to imagine paying full price for their dinner and others had to use a 10-percent-off coupon. Those who used the coupon said they felt cheaper and more embarrassed because of it.

The third study manipulated the responsibility for the coupon. Participants were told either that they clipped a discount coupon themselves or that a coupon was provided by the server. Those who clipped the coupons themselves generally chose not to use them. “But when you removed impression management concerns by having the waiter present it,” said Ashworth, “they were more likely to use it.”

The final study asked participants to now imagine being the date, to see how they felt when coupons were used or the full price paid for the meal. For men who were taken out by women, their perceptions of cheapness was unaffected by the use of a coupon. Not so for the female participants taken out by men. They judged men who used coupons as less attractive, and said they were less likely to go out with them on a second date.

“Together, the studies show that consumers do care about avoiding impressions,” Ashworth said, “and that coupons can create these impressions because they are overt deliberate attempts to save money.”

Although some evidence indicates that people accurately assess the impression they are making, such as the men in the coupon study, there is conflicting evidence, says Ashworth. People have a tendency to overestimate the degree of consensus people will have on their impression, as well as the extent to which they are in the social spotlight.

It’s not all about you

In an attempt to test how accurate people are when they engage in impression management, Ashworth constructed a series of experiments involving pink and black MP3 players. “Men dislike the idea of being perceived as feminine,” Ashworth said, “but there may be a disconnect, in that the way I assess appearing feminine is different from how you assess me if I were to appear feminine.”

Ashworth first asked male and female participants to judge what they thought of a man with a pink or black MP3 player strapped to his arm. He found that the participants did not view the man with the pink MPs player any more or less positively than the man with the black MP3 player. But when we asked how they believed they would be perceived by other people, there’s a huge effect of the pink player. They perceived they would be much more negatively perceived if they wore the pink player, despite the fact that if they are in a different role they didn’t react that way.”

In a related study, Ashworth’s research team “auctioned off” the pink and black MP3 players to the study participants. The result: men bid half as much for the pink player than for black player (there was no difference in bids among the female participants).

“One of the implications is that these impression management effects could be widespread,” Ashworth said. “I see these products, they get me thinking, I overestimate how they’ll make me look. I may be willing to spend more or not buy it at all  to pursue impression, but in the end I’m incorrect.”

Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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