What makes consumers tick? Often, it’s something they’re not even aware of. And that’s what Jim Alvarez Mourey, an assistant professor of marketing, wants his students to know.

“My research focuses on misattribution or the cues in the environment that influence a person without his or her conscious recognition,” he says.  Mourey focuses on three opportunities for misattribution: social identity, culture and relationship building.

In his 2013 book, “Urge: Why You Really Want What You Want (And How To Make Everyone Want What You've Got),” he illustrates how people’s perceptions, thoughts and emotions—colored by their cultures and social relationships—affect how they value products and make decisions. Readers call the book a “shining beacon of consumer behavior,” an “amazing text book, filled with great humor and real-world examples,” and the “best marketing book ever.” 

“I like to bridge the gap between psychological theory and actual behavior,” says Mourey. “My students end up with a perspective that’s useful and relevant, whether they’re acting as marketing practitioners or as consumers in their everyday lives.”

Social Identity

Social identity is self-definition in comparison to others, as Mourey explains. “The degree to which people think they are similar to, or different from, others affects their motivation and confidence. Competition, even when it’s unconscious, affects how people act.”

To prove his case, Mourey studied the effort people put into a finding a job.
“When you apply for a position, you’ll think of other applicants: Are they like you or unlike you? The question might be only in the back of your mind, but it’s there.  When job seekers think all the applicants are similar, they’re more confident and less likely to put in much effort. On the other hand, if the others are perceived as different, the effort to get the job increases exponentially.  It’s subtle, but that’s all it takes.” 

In his research, Mourey worked with a New York “headhunting” company that was surprised when its six-figure executive clients contributed so little to the job search effort. In a series of questionnaires, job seekers were asked to list ways that other applicants might be similar or dissimilar. When it was easy to think of how others are dissimilar, or difficult to think of how others are similar, the applicant became more insecure and, therefore, motivated to work harder. When Mourey repeated the experiment in an online survey of entry-level workers, results were the same.

Culture

Mourey has identified a phenomenon he calls “cultural fluency” in which expectations stemming from one’s background and experiences can be manipulated without a person’s awareness. (His paper, “Consequences of Cultural Fluency,” will be published in the journal, Social Cognition).

Two years ago, Mourey staffed the food table at a Fourth of July picnic. “People got plates decorated with flags and fireworks or with pumpkins and bats; some got simple, white plates. Those with the flags-and-fireworks plates took more food, every time. They responded, unconsciously, to the appropriateness of the decoration.”  The same held true in Hong Kong during a Chinese New Year celebration: When the Chinese people had red-bordered plates (red being the culturally correct color), they took more food.

Another experiment reached the same conclusion.

“When consumers see something culturally fluent, they ‘go with the flow.’ But when something is just a little bit off, they’re forced into a more deliberate style of thinking. This guardedness can carry over to other activities,” says Mourey.  “I’ve shown people two sets of wedding pictures. In one, the couple is dressed traditionally; in the other, the clothing is strangely colored, such as green wedding dress and a purple suit. After viewing the photos, people are shown a picture of a shovel and asked whether they’d buy it. Those who first viewed the traditionally costumed couples said yes, without hesitation. Those who viewed the non-traditional weddings said no; the cultural disfluency of the costumes pushed them to resist making a decision.”

Relationship Building

The third opportunity for misattribution, relationship building, is often exploited by anyone with something to sell. “Companies anthropomorphize their brands all the time,” says Mourey. “We treat products as if they have personalities; we trust companies just like a friend. And that’s what their marketing campaigns intend. If a product is ‘humanized’ in some way, consumers will often unconsciously find it more attractive.”

In the classroom, Mourey’s students conduct experiments and share their findings through a podcast or on YouTube. Each presentation ends with practical implications: “What does this mean to you, the consumer?” 

His goals for students are ambitious: “Every business student at DePaul takes a class on marketing because it matters. Understanding how humans respond to campaigns, and recognizing the psychological mechanisms behind marketing, is a form of consumer advocacy. I expect my students to change the world!”