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 Research.

"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.

Twin study

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.

Marketing lessons

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 preferences."

Decision-making styles

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."