Genetics may be responsible for what we buy and when we buy
it, according to a new study about the buying patterns of twins.
"Whether we like science fiction, hybrid cars, jazz,
mustard, opera, and dark chocolate all seem to have a genetic component," says
Aner Sela, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Florida, whose
study will be published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer
"On the other hand," says Sela, "we didn't find such an
effect for abstract art, body piercing, and cilantro, which people seem to
either love or hate."
While previous research has shown a heritable effect for
intelligence, personality, and even for divorce, drug addiction and voting
patterns, Sela notes this is the first study to show genetics play a role in
consumer choices. "It's interesting to know that a lot of what we want and what
we do is determined by our ancestors," he says.
Sela and Itamar Simonson, professor of marketing at Stanford
University, surveyed 110 identical twins and 70 same-sex fraternal twins about
their product preferences and buying patterns, such as whether they would spend
$100 on necessary groceries or a pampering massage.
Similar choices were more common in identical twins, whose
genetic coding is identical, than among fraternal twins, who share the same
household environment but only half of their DNA.
The finding that consumer preferences are often determined
by inherent factors could suggest that companies might sometimes be better
advised to let consumers take the lead in expressive preferences and then react
with certain products, rather than relying on marketing tactics to sway
customers' buying behavior, Sela says.
"Consumer researchers have often demonstrated that consumers
behave irrationally and choose inconsistently," he says. "While this is
sometimes true, we show that people are not just sheep in terms of being
subject to manipulative influences, but actually bring with them to the
decision-making process their personalities, inherent tendencies, and innate
The findings suggest that even certain "irrational" choice
tendencies may be inherent. Beyond specific product likes and dislikes, there
is a genetic basis for selecting a compromise or middle option, choosing
between a sure gain and a risky gamble, and favoring "vice" over "virtue" in
the form of a utilitarian or hedonistic option.
These different styles of decision-making reveal themselves
in a various ways when making consumer choices, Sela says. The tendency to
select "vice" over "virtue," for example, might show up in using a $4 gift card
for Godiva chocolates instead of a package of batteries.
"While these preliminary results can be interpreted in more than one way, we hypothesize that a predisposition for prudent behavior might be at the heart of these kinds of behavioral patterns," Sela says."The inclination to choose a compromise option -- selecting the middle option, going for the safe as opposed to the extreme choice, being risk-averse, preferring virtue over vice -- seem to relate to an underlying tendency to be prudent," he says.
Prudence can encompass cautiousness, discretion, moderation,
being mindful, and getting prepared, according to Sela. "In some respects, it
might be represented by the distinction between 'living on the edge' versus 'living in the mainstream'."
A genetic component had not been established before in identifying a pattern for these individual differences that affect consumer behavior, Sela says. "Our research is groundbreaking with choice tendencies in general -- do I tend to be risk seeking, do I tend to be compromising, do I tend to be variety seeking -- making us really the first to show that those behaviors have a genetic basis."