Consumer Attitudes & Behaviours: Marketing To The Inner Child
Humans are a ‘neotenous’ species, retaining youthful traits well into adulthood. This paper explores the juvenile elements in adult motivation and behaviour, outlining the implications these have for consumer research and marketing. Consumer societies are becoming more immature; consumer decision-making in many situations resembles pre-adult patterns of thought. The paper concludes with a segmentation of consumers in terms of the degree and types of neoteny that they exhibit.
When we grow up we do not ‘put away childish things’: many of them stay with us, remaining important throughout our adult lives. This paper explores the juvenile elements in adult motivation, thinking and behaviour and outlines the implications these have for consumer insight and marketing. We start the paper by reviewing the history of the idea of the eternal child in the life sciences and social sciences, illustrated with examples of insights into neotenous consumer behaviour drawn from past studies we have conducted. We then look at evidence that the cultures of industrialized societies are becoming more immature or ‘neotenous’, and the implications of this for marketing and research. In the third section we explore the ways in which adult consumer decision-making relies on problem-solving capacities similar to those found in children and how these can be handled in research. In the final section we present a segmentation of adult consumers based on the degree and type of neotenous traits they exhibit.
A brief history of the eternal child
Neoteny – the retention by a species of juvenile characteristics into adulthood – has long been recognized as a potentially important factor in human evolution. In 1926 the Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk made the first detailed study of the remarkable similarities between adult human anatomy and that of young and unborn apes. In addition to common features such as the flatness of the face and the distribution of hair on the body, the list of similarities included a number of similarities in features which are critical to human uniqueness such as, the large size of the brain compared with body size and the shape of the pelvis permitting an upright stance and bi-pedalism (Gould, 1977). Looking at Figure 1 below, the infant ape on the left seems to have more in common with Titian’s Renaissance prince than it does with its future, mature self.
The relative immaturity of the human species compared to our nearest ancestor appears to go beyond anatomical details to include significant behavioural traits such as,prolonged infantile dependency on parents, high levels of co-operation (and correspondingly low levels of aggression and dominance) and the continuation of play behaviour throughout adulthood.
Humans have a particularly long period of infantile and juvenile dependency. Whereas a chimpanzee can start feeding itself not long after birth and can take care of itself completely by the age of four, humans are born completely helpless and are unable to take care of themselves before they reach at least 8 years old. In most cultures children continue to be dependent on their parents to some degree until at least their early-mid teens. Indeed, as we shall discuss later, in Western post-industrial societies children are continuing to be dependent on their parents well into their 20’s. During this extended period of maturation, two beneficial processes take place: the brain grows and children acquire significant cultural learning. The human brain grows 300% between birth and adulthood. This compares with an additional growth after birth in the chimpanzee brain of only about 30%. This extended period of dependency provides an opportunity for the transmission of complex cultural learning. This has been one of the keys to the success of the human species and becomes more important for individuals as human societies become more complex.
Another seemingly juvenile human feature is our non-aggressiveness. The idea that humans are non-aggressive strikes us as odd given the deadly history of human warfare.But the huge groups we are able to live in are a testament to our relatively non-aggressive nature compared with most species. In most apes aggression and characteristic patterns of dominance emerge in adulthood. The aggressive competition for dominance between male chimps sets very low limits on the sizes of the groups within which they are able to co-operate. Hunting parties of more than 5 male chimps, for example, usually break down very quickly due to constant in-fighting. By contrast the relatively passive, childlike human species is able to co-operate in vast groups. Human armies number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. This represents co-operation on a scale unimaginable in any of our less neotenous primate cousins. Even insects such as ants, the model of a co-operative species, don’t live in groups as large as humans. In the largest cities, such as Mumbai and Karachi, 12 million individuals co-exist peacefully compared with a maximum size for an ant colony of about 5 million. If you calculate the percentage of all interactions in a major city which actually result in violence, it turns out to be vanishingly small. Even in a city which has a reputation for violence like New York, on average an individual inhabitant will only be the victim of violence once every 50 years (Bromhall, 2003). Our juvenescent capacity for co-operation is also reflected in our tendency to imitate others and accommodate our behaviour to fit in with the various groups of which we are a part. Humans are capable of identifying with, and imitating, a very wide circle of individuals – from our immediate family and friends, to complete strangers from very different cultures who we will only ever see in magazines, on TV or at the movies.
The survival of play behaviour into adulthood appears to be another neotenous human trait. Most species cease playing in early adulthood, but humans continue to play throughout their entire lives. Play is defined in biological terms as any functional behavioural pattern performed in a context where the full benefits and costs of the activity are not present – i.e. activities performed for their own sake rather than for a particular purpose. Compared to the functional version of the activity, the play activity tends to be exaggerated, repetitive and fragmentated or disordered (Martin and Caro, 1985) and is often accompanied by stereotyped signals that indicate to playmates that this is a ‘play’ rather than ‘real’ form of the behaviour (Bekoff, 1975; Rasa, 1984). Play in adult, juvenile and infant humans takes a range of forms. Children exhibit informal play behaviours similar to those of other species of mammals, such as play fighting. Their greater power of abstraction compared to other mammals also permits human children to engage extensively in pretend play, such as role playing or projecting human attributes onto objects such as toys. In juveniles and adults play becomes more formalized: organized sports and the arts both fit the definition of play. They involve the performance of a functional activity in a non-functional context – for example, when we see a murder on stage we know that no one has really been murdered and do not call the police or ambulance services to deal with the actors involved. These forms of play also use conventional signals (the pitch, the picture frame, the stage) to set the play context apart (Dissanayake, 1995). Sports involve repetition – laps of a track, kick-offs, and so on.The arts involve exaggeration, for example the stylization of figures and forms in visual art. The Dutch Historian, Johan Huizinga, in his work Homo Ludens identified play structures underlying a whole range of human activities from the arts, to the law and even war. Huizinga went so far as to claim that play was culture-creating and that without play there could be no civilization (Huizinga, 1955).
Case study: Playfulness in European paint consumers
Most DIYers prefer to buy ready mixed coloured paints. However, in many Continental European markets, a significant proportion of consumers prefer to mix their own colours at home, using a white base paint and coloured tints. When we first started studying this behaviour for a major paint manufacturer, it was assumed that these home tinters just needed to be shown the advantages of ready-mixed paints (in terms of convenience and avoidance of mess) and they would switch to using them. But instead we found that they were actually very committed to home tinting and to some extent saw the mess and inconvenience as an important element in the colour mixing process. When they mixed paint they were in effect role playing, imaginatively assuming the roles of professions that are highly esteemed in their societies. Some went into role as chemists, performing careful ‘experiments’ to arrive at the precise colour they wanted; others saw themselves almost as artists, freely, passionately (and messily!) mixing colours in their studios. The results were sometimes, by consumers’ own admission, not very satisfactory, with muddy browns the inevitable end result of poor colour mixing understanding and imprecise methods of measurement. But the final colour for many was not as important as the process by which they arrived at it – a classic hallmark of play activity. Instead of trying to convert home tinters to ready-mixed colours, our client worked on developing solutions which helped home mixers achieve a more satisfactory end result and avoid undue wastage, whilst not denying them play element that was so important to them in the mixing process.
In the field of psychology the idea that in adulthood we retain, or revert to, traits and patterns of behaviour from our childhood is almost as old as the discipline itself. In Freudian psychoanalysis regression to earlier stages of development is a key form of Ego-defence – a response to the Ego’s conflicts with the Id (our instinctual, libidinal drives) and the Superego (the symbolic internalization of parental authority or cultural regulations and taboos). Like other forms of Ego-defence identified by Freud such as denial, rationalization or sublimation, regression involves a retreat from, and distortion of, reality. Eric Berne in his theory of Transactional Analysis (Berne, 1964) identified three ego states: the Parent, the Child and the Adult. The Parent ego state comprises the various parental teachings, injunctions and emotional responses ‘recorded’ early in our lives. The Child ego state consists of the child’s internal emotional responses to parental actions in early childhood. The Adult ego state mediates between The Parent and Child ego states. Positive aspects of the Child ego state are friendliness, co-operativeness, creativity and expressiveness; negative aspects of the Child ego state include anxiety, submissiveness, recklessness and selfishness. At times of psychological stress individuals settle into a dominant ego state. Thus, in some individuals a Child ego state will dominate, whilst in others a Parent or Adult ego state will dominate.
Case study: regression and Parent-Child ego states in UK consumers’ attitudes to personal finances
In our research in the financial services market, we have found that many aspects of UKconsumers’ attitudes to personal finance are best understood from the perspective of human neoteny. Many consumers are scared of finances and retreat into wishful thinking strategies to avoid having to confront uncomfortable facts about their financial situation.11.7 million workers make no contribution to a private pension. Purchasing items on credit is far more common in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. Average consumer borrowing was £4,526 per adult in January 2007. The English colloquial description of credit as buying on the ‘never-never’, invoking the idea of ‘never-never land’ – a utopian dreamland – is revealing of the childlike retreat into fantasy that credit facilitates. Until the 1980’s banks had a highly paternalistic attitude towards their customers and customers, for their part, were happy to defer to the banks. But as competition in the market has increased and with the rapid decline of deference towards traditional institutions, banks and their customers have been struggling to escape from the Parent-Child relationship that often exists between them. Despite the CEO of one of the largestUK banks openly stating that credit cards are being used far too indiscriminately by consumers, credit card borrowing continues to grow. Many consumers are highly inert in their behaviour, keeping their money in uncompetitive accounts or paying far higher mortgage rates than they need to, entrusting their interests entirely to luck or to the goodwill of their providers. At the other end of the spectrum, some, such as small businesses, are like rebellious teenagers in their attitudes to the banks, kicking out at their parents and blaming them for all the world’s ills. In this situation, establishing whether a customer or group of customers wants a Parent-Child or Adult-Adult relationship is a key first step in deciding how to best, and most profitably, serve them.
This brief overview has identified a range of adult human behaviours and feeling states that have been attributed to the survival into adulthood of childlike traits. These traits include: co-operative behaviour, friendliness and openness and the relative absence of aggressive or dominant tendencies; playfulness, imagination and creativity; a tendency to retreat from reality and adult responsibilities; submissiveness and rebelliousness; egocentricity and risk taking. The extent and degree of these neotenous traits is likely to vary between individuals. There is now growing evidence that the level and depth of neotenous behaviour varies between societies and that demographic, economic and cultural pressures in advanced, industrial societies are giving rise to an increase in neotenous behaviour. We explore this in the next section.
Getting younger every day – our increasingly neotenous culture
In physical and physiological terms we actually grow up more quickly now than we did 200 years ago. Improvements in diet and possibly the effects of hormones introduced into the food chain through intensive methods of farming have resulted in the age at the onset of puberty declining from about 17-18 at the start of the C19th down to their current level at about the age of 12-13 (de Muink Keizer-Schrama and Mul, 2001). But in social and cultural terms we are showing definite signs of increased juvenescence. Figure 2 below shows the how dramatically the percent of US 20 year olds and 30 year olds completing the transition to adulthood has declined between 1960 and 2000. (Note: completing the transition to adulthood here is defined as having done all the following: leaving home, finishing school, getting married, having a child and being financially independent).
Figure 2. Percent US 20 and 30 year olds completing transition to adulthood in 1960 and 2000 using traditional benchmarks
Source: US Census data
In Europe, similar patterns are being observed. Figure 3 below shows how the age at which women in Europe have started having children has increased since 1970. The smaller increase in the age at first birth amongst Romanian women indicates that this phenomenon is linked to a particularly advanced stage of economic development.
Figure 3. Mean age of women at first birth, 1960-2004, All EU, UK and Romania
Many young people in advanced industrial societies are electing to continue living with their parents well into their 20s. In the US, for example, the percentage of 26-year-olds still living with their parents nearly doubled from 11 percent to 20 percent between 1970 and 2004, (Schoeni, 2004). In Italy 46% of Italian men between the ages of 30 and 34 live with their parents, compared with only 26% in 1987 (Bell et al, 2007). This growing group of young adults who refuse to fly the nest goes by many names in different countries. InCanada they are called ‘boomerang kids’, in Germany ‘nest-squatters’, in the US‘adultescents’. So worried are the Japanese by the phenomenon that the issue was debated in the Japanese parliament. Just as childhood as a distinct lifestage emerged during the modern era and the teenager appeared in the second half of the Twentieth Century, social scientists have now identified early adulthood as distinct lifestage (Furstenberg et al, 2004).
This development appears to be a response to a range of underlying social and economic changes. In economic terms, it now takes far longer to secure a job that pays enough to support a family (Bell et al, 2007). Even leaving home is financially very challenging for young people. In the UK for example, house prices have been rising much faster than incomes with the result that it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to get onto the property ladder. About two-thirds of Americans in their early 20s receive some form of financial support from parents, while about 40 percent are still receiving assistance in their late 20s. (Schoeni and Ross, 2004). It has been estimated that more than a quarter of the total cost of raising a child is incurred after the child has reached 17. However, this regression to greater parental dependence is only possible given a sufficiently high level of parental income. Furstenberg et al note that young people whose parents are in the lowest third of the income ladder leave home, complete their education, start work, get married and have children earlier than those in the income bands above them.
As careers and career paths become more complex and greater stress is placed on job satisfaction, an extended period of parental dependency allows a longer period of intensive personal and educational development (see, for example, Côté, 2000). In this respect, early adulthood recapitulates the evolutionary advantages of prolonged parental dependency: the transmission of more, and more complex, adaptive, cultural learning.This is simply the latest stage in a 4.5 million year process. Bruce Charlton an evolutionary psychiatrist at Newcastle University observes that “formal education requires a child-like stance of receptivity to new learning, and cognitive flexibility”. He claims that the dynamism of modern society demands such a high level of behavioural flexibility and adaptability that many people, particularly the highly educated, never reach maturity, retaining childlike traits such as openness to new experience, over-sensitivity and unpredictability throughout their lives (Charlton, 2006). In effect, we live in an environment now that prevents many of us from growing up.
These developments have been accompanied by shifts in cultural attitudes about what it means to be an independent adult. In 1957 more than half of Americans viewed people who did not want to get married as immature or selfish. By 1976 fewer than one-third thought this way (Veroff, Douvan and Kulka, 1981). In 1962 over four fifths of American mothers took the view that married couples should have children. By 1982 only two fifths of those women still agreed with this view. And in a follow-up study in 1993 only a fifth of the daughters of these women agreed with this view.
Our growing neoteny is also exhibited in another way: the degree to which we engage in playful activities. As we noted above playful activities include a range of leisure activities such as enjoyment of the arts and entertainment, participating in sporting activities as well as pastimes such as gambling. Figure 4 below shows how consumer spending in theUK on such playful, recreational and cultural activities has increased over the last decade relative to spending on other categories.
Figure 4. Change in UK consumer expenditure on recreation and culture, 1996 – 2005
Source: UK Office for National Statistics
The US employment figures shown in Figure 5 below tell a similar story, with growth in employment in the arts, recreation and culture sector outstripping that in the economy as a whole.
Figure 5. Change in US employment in arts, recreation and culture, 2001 – 2006
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages
These trends have a number of consequences for marketing. Significant opportunities arising from increased juvenescence have already emerged. For example, in 1990 the average age of a video-gamer in the UK was 18; in 2007 it was 29. In 1999 9% of Americans over the age of 50 played video games; by 2005 the figure was 25%. Looking into the future, the UK buy-to-let market is forecast to grow by 40 percent by 2016, as more young adults seek to delay settling down and remain “footloose and fancy free”, renting properties for longer rather than buying them as has been the case in the past (Alliance & Leicester press release, March 2007). Parents purchasing in many categories will increasingly find themselves in need states driven by the current or possible future dependency of their children well into adulthood. In the area of financial services for example, the longer period of financial dependency of children will be a significant factor in the financial planning of many parents. In many categories the emotional pressures of prolonged parenting provides an opportunity for marketers to offer a whole range of compensatory benefits related to their products or services. Marketers targeting those aged 45-65 should consider ways in which these pressures can be reflected and reduced in developing propositions and communications aimed at this group. Just as the young family is a commonly used scenario in advertising for products such as family cars, so the older family could be used as the scenario in ads for propositions that can be positioned as helping parents to escape from the pressure of prolonged child dependency for a while.
The steady growth in expenditure in playful categories such as the arts, recreation and culture also indicates areas of likely future growth for new products and services. Online gambling, video gaming and professional sports have all been major growth industries in recent years in Europe and America. Provided that wealth and incomes continue to increase, marketers can expect to find disproportionate growth in opportunities in markets related to play compared with other more ‘serious’ markets. Moreover, there is likely to be an increased demand for playful variations on, and versions of, functional products and services. Consider the way in which products such as mobile phones have evolved from completely functional designs offering functional services to playful, fun designs where functionality is either subordinated to or camouflaged by aesthetic considerations and where the services offered have expanded to include music, games and TV. Another juvenescent trend in marketing that can be expected to continue is the playful, ironic reversion to retro styles. In recent years, retro styling has become commonplace. When it was launched in Japan in 1991, the limited edition Nissan Figaro, styled along the lines of 1950’s cars, was so popular that a lottery had to be organized to decide who would get one. In the last 20 years we have seen shoe designs from the 1940’s, telephone handset designs from the 1920’s and 1970’s, kitchenware designs from the 1930’s and T-shirt designs from the 1960’s. Seen from the perspective of human neoteny retro styles combine a nostalgia for the past (which is by definition simpler and easier to deal with than the present by virtue of the fact that it is complete and in some senses fixed) with a playful desire for novelty.
The trends outlined here do not show that our juvenescent tendencies are increasing.Rather they show that particular conditions bring out our constant neotenous tendencies – i.e. that we respond to particular types of change in circumstances by, in effect, regressing to a more childlike state. Thus, as disposable income increases so expenditure on playful activities increases. Or again, at a given level of general parental wealth and when starting salaries for many jobs available to graduates are very low, young adults are likely to revert to an extended period of parental dependency, for their own comfort and to develop their skills to get the best job possible. This tendency to regress under particular conditions is also seen in our reasoning and decision-making processes, where it is of particular significance for consumer decision-making. In the next section we look at this regressive tendency in adult thought in more detail.
Like a kid in a sweetshop – regression to childlike thought processes in adult consumer decision-making
However they may differ in detail, theories of child development tend to agree about the general developmental path which our cognitive abilities take from birth to adulthood.Table 1 below compares the developmental stages in the models of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner (whose work on developmental stages was influenced by the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky).
Table 1. The developmental stages of the main theories of child development
The table shows how we progress from embodied, concrete forms of reasoning, relying on interaction with the external world, to more abstract, symbolic forms of reasoning.However, whilst older children and adults are able to undertake abstract symbolic reasoning under the kind of conditions found in test situations – precisely formulated problems, performative pressure and so on – this type of reasoning is not something that most of us are particularly comfortable with or engage in very often in our everyday lives.As the philosopher A.N Whitehead wrote:
‘Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle – they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses and must only be made at decisive moments’.(Whitehead, 1925)
Most of the day-to-day decision-making that we engage in is based more on the interactive, intuitive and concrete types of thought found in the early stages of childhood development than on the formal, abstract, fully-developed stage. Writers such as Malcolm Gladwell (Gladwell, 2005) and Guy Claxton (Claxton 1997) have shown that in many circumstances interactive and intuitive decision-making is more effective and efficient than more formal, abstract decision-making. But this type of thinking can also lead us astray. Cognitive psychologists have identified a range of systematic biases in ordinary human thinking and decision-making. The nature of these biases suggests that in real-life contexts where decisions are complex and not posed in the form of scientific problems, we revert to a reliance on immediacy, concreteness and a narrow focus on a few attributes, a reliance that characterises the approach to problem solving of earlier developmental stages.
The most common bias in our reasoning is the ‘Availability error’. This is the tendency we have to place too great a weight in our deliberations on data which are immediate and salient to our minds, irrespective of their objective importance. The immediate and salient aspects of a situation might not be the most objectively important for decision-making, they are simply the ones that capture our attention to the exclusion of all others.A number of factors increase the availability of some data relative to others:
– Concrete material is more available than abstract material. Material which is associated with strong or emotive images is more concrete than that which is not. One study found that people think they are twice as likely to die in an accident as they are to die from a stroke – whereas, in fact, you are forty times as likely to die from a stroke as in an accident. But the dramatic and emotive mental images that we have of accidents lead to accidents being more immediate and salient for us (Sutherland, 1992). When governments want people to give up smoking they do not publish statistics about the tenfold increase in the incidence of lung cancer amongst smokers compared with non-smokers, they run adverts showing individual smokers dying of cancer, because statistics are too abstract to make an impact on most people’s reasoning.
– On a list of unrelated items we are more likely to attach undue weight to the last items on the list. This is called the ‘Recency error’. In effect the last thing we see or here is more available to us.
– If we are presented with related material, however, it is the first items that we experience that are more available to us, because we interpret all later material in terms of the early material. This is called the ‘Primacy error’. It is the reason why our first impressions of something tend to colour all our subsequent perceptions of it. This is why psychological pricing works: when we see £5.99 we focus on the £5 and tend to overlook the 99p.
Lastly, the ‘Halo effect’ is the tendency for a single, very salient positive trait to lead us to judge other traits more positively. Branding is a good example of the Halo effect: we have a very positive set of associations with a particular brand name and that leads us to judge the quality of the product to be better than we would without the brand name associations. In taste tests preference scores for Coca Cola improve significantly when subjects are told they are drinking Coca Cola compared with scores on blind taste tests of the same drink (McClure et al, 2004).
This reliance on immediate, concrete data can be seen in a number of consumer purchase decisions. With technical products where different brands could be compared in terms of performance using publications like Which? magazine, you might expect people to make extensive use of such rational comparisons. But even in these areas most people rely heavily on a small number of concrete cues, such as touch, feel and sound when deciding what brand to buy. Car manufacturers, for example, expend a lot of time, money and effort in ensuring that the doors on their cars make a reassuringly expensive noise when the door is closed, as this is a key differentiating factor for many consumers.Manufacturers of hi-fi equipment engineer the tape and CD eject function so that it provides satisfying tactile feedback to the user, because this is one of the cues that purchasers use when selecting a brand.
Because adult consumer decision-making has so much in common with reasoning processes from early developmental stages it can be very useful when researching adult consumers, to adapt methodologies designed for researching children. A number of techniques from children’s research translate to good effect into research with adults:
– Children have short attention spans: adults have short attention spans for abstract or repetitious material or for material in which they have fairly low involvement or interest.When researching children, the problem of wavering attention is dealt with by keeping them moving – physically and contextually; changing the place and the task every half hour or 45 minutes. The same principle should be applied to adults when researching a large number of quite similar concepts, or more technical, ‘grudge purchase’ products such as insurance. By using techniques such as breakout groups within the main group discussion structure, adult respondents’ interest in otherwise rather ‘dry’ subject matter can be held for far longer and far more productively in terms of the number of concepts they are able to evaluate.
– Children think concretely and in an embodied way, preferring to see and interact with things rather than talk about them in the abstract. And as we have seen, so do adults. As researchers already know, the use of visually rich and interactive stimulus material will elicit far richer and more varied responses than purely textual responses or mere verbal discussion. But if you don’t have time to produce such stimulus or if the topic does not lend itself to it, then encourage and stimulate physical movement in groups and interviews – get respondents to do exercises and tasks that involve them moving around within the same space or between different spaces. Adults, like kids, tend to be ‘embodied’ thinkers – we use gestures and auto-stimulation such as head scratching to help us think. The philosopher Daniel Dennett points to the role of such auto-stimulation in helping us to connect different domains of thought within ourselves and at the same time making us more self-aware (Dennet, 1991). So liberating this type of physical activity will facilitate creativity and put respondents in touch with themselves and their own thoughts and feelings.
– If much adult thought, like that of children, is embodied and therefore grounded in what we do rather than what we say, then close observation of consumer and respondent behaviour is as important as verbal questioning. When researching very young children (3-5 year olds) researchers rely far more heavily on observing what they do in the presence of actual products than on verbal feedback from them. In the same way, when researching adults making low involvement decisions, such as FMCG product purchases or reactions to direct mail (i.e. where decision-making is quick and relatively unreflective) close observation of behaviour, gesture and facial expression can add a vital dimension to understanding the consumer.
Young at heart – segmenting consumers on the basis of neoteny
Zoologist Clive Bromhall makes the point that, like any evolved trait, neoteny is likely to vary in the human population. Thus, there are likely to be individuals who display extreme neoteny and those who display lower levels (Bromhall, 2003). Some individuals appear to grow up very quickly and do not exhibit any childlike qualities: others appear to remain very childlike throughout their lives. Moreover, the way these different types of people make consumer decisions, the types of things they buy and the kinds of messages they respond to are likely to be different.
Thus, it will be useful to have a segmentation which groups people on the basis of their neoteny. To explore these issues we conducted a survey with a nationally representative survey of 500 UK respondents. The study was conducted with an on-line panel. This was mainly for reasons of cost, but also because we have noted on previous studies we have done that segments that are youthful in outlook tend to be slightly overrepresented in on-line panels, so the on-line methodology will ensure that we can explore the most neotenous individuals in society.
We included in the questionnaire a range of statements based on the types of neotenous (and non-neotenous) characteristics that we have identified in the first part of this paper.These questions covered the following tendencies and traits: different types of play (role play, fantasy, game playing); emotional dependency; susceptibility to social influence; ability to adapt to adult realities; openness to new experiences; stimulus-seeking; passivity vs. aggressiveness; and moral development. In all 30 statements were included.For cross validation purposes questions were included to measure the 5 factor model of personality, attitudes to brands across a range of categories as well as a range of socio-demographic questions. Table 2 below shows the result of the factor analysis on the 30 statements relating to neoteny.
Table 2. Results of the factor analysis
Using Principal Components analysis, four factors were extracted accounting for 51% of the variance in the data. The Cronbach’s Alpha score is a measure of the reliability of each factor. A score around 0.7 or higher is normally considered a good indication of reliability. The only factor that is slightly low on this measure is the third factor, Reality conflict. But the key test of factors is their interpretability (Alt, 1990) and the interpretation of this and the other factors is fairly clear:
– Imagistic-ego defense is a quintessentially neotenous trait. It is the tendency for the self or ego to seek refuge from reality using a highly developed faculty of imagination.This powerful imagistic drive has other consequences such as a tendency to lose concentration and become distracted from the task in hand (and thus make mistakes) and a tendency to rely on image-driven intuition when making decisions.
– Stimulus seeking involves the tendency of the youthful type to seek stimulation in a variety of ways and to respond to exciting situations in a positive way.
– Reality conflict captures the struggle that neotenous types have with the complexities and responsibilities of adult reality and a corresponding nostalgia for the carefree simplicities of childhood.
– Aggressive control is a non-neotenous trait. It contrasts with the passivity associated with juvenescence. Up to a point this can be an adaptive trait, and as the high loading of the statement about sulking to get your own way indicates, control can be a conscious or unconscious objective of anger.
We then used these factors to create a segmentation of individuals. Table 3 below shows how respondents in study segmented based on these factors and profiled by their loadings on the standard ‘Five factor’ model components.
Table 3. Segmentation of individuals – factor loading scores on neoteny components and ‘Five factor’ model components
– Eternal Children are the most neotenous group, scoring high on Imagistic ego defense, Stimulus seeking and Reality avoidance and low on Aggressive control. On the Five factor model this group tends to score fairly high on Openness and Agreeableness, reflecting their sociable, cooperative and explorative nature. This group may also exhibit what psychologists term ‘imaginary audience’ – the tendency to believe that you are under constant surveillance, that leads to the self-consciousness, conformity to peer group norms and sense of uniqueness that are characteristic of early adolescence (Elkind, 1967).
– Perpetual Adolescents are the next most neotenous group. They score fairly high on the neotenous factors of Imagistic ego defense and Reality avoidance but low on Stimulus seeking and very high on Aggressive control. This combination of factor scores together with the low score on Stability (from the Five factor model) suggests the type of personality profile that is often found in later adolescence where insecurity and unresolved anger are dominant traits. The score for Stimulus seeking is low in this segment. Risk taking and experimentation is common in early adolescence where it appears to be driven primarily by peer pressure and a desire to establish one’s identity relative to others (see for example Lightfoot, 1997 or Elkind, 1978). With these social pressures reduced in adulthood the Perpetual adolescent type appears to revert to stimulus avoidance.
– Adult Controllers are a mature but energetic personality type. They score fairly low on Imagistic ego defense and Reality conflict but high on Stimulus seeking and Aggressive control. These are the ‘Alpha’ type, ‘dominant’ personalities, undistracted by excessive imagination, capable of using aggression in appropriate ways to get what they want and actively seeking out challenges.
– Mature and Constrained are the ‘oldest’ of the segments in outlook. They have low scores on all of the neotenous factors and also have a low score on Aggressive control which probably reflects the fact that they have been the most susceptible to socializing influences.
Figure 6 below shows the profile of the segments in terms of age and personal income.
As might be expected the segments with a more youthful outlook tend to have a younger age profile. However, individuals from older age groups make up a significant proportion of the more ‘youthful’ segments. For example 43% of the Eternal Children segment is aged 36 or over. Conversely, a significant proportion of the more mature segments are from younger age groups. Thus 33% of the Adult Controllers are under the age of 36. The income profile confirms the interpretation of the Adult Controllers as being the more ‘Alpha’ type of personality. Their aggressiveness, need for excitement and ability to deal directly with reality without the need for fantasy enabling them to be more successful in their careers. (Note: the gender split between the segments is fairly even: only the Aggressive controllers are slightly more likely to be male – 55% vs. 45% female; and the Mature and Constrained segment slightly more likely to be female – 59% female vs. 41% male).
To start to build a picture of the consumer attitudes of the different segments we asked questions about attitudes to brands and price across a number of categories. The data for selected categories are shown below in Table 4.
Table 4. Segments profiled by attitudes to brands
Eternal Children and Adult Controllers are likely to purchase premium brands with a strong symbolic element. They want brands that have a strong aesthetic appeal and that reflect well on them with others. The motives underlying this differ for the two segments. The motive for Eternal Children is probably to be thought well of by others in order to gain their acceptance, to appear to be someone that other people will want to associate with. The motive for Adult Controllers is probably to project an image of dominance and superiority to others. By contrast, the Perpetual Adolescents and Mature and Constrained segments are more likely to want to buy the cheapest brand that functions reliably. For these two segments the desire to project an image is less pressing than the more functional requirement to get the lowest price possible.
The segments will also differ in the types of marketing that they respond to. Eternal Children are most likely to respond to marketing which feeds their imagination and appeals to their sense of uniqueness. This group will make decisions quickly and intuitively based on visual and haptic cues and is also the most likely to exhibit ‘herd’ behaviour – imitating others in order to identify themselves with particular groups.Perpetual Adolescents and the Mature and Constrained are most likely to respond to more restrained appeals to rational factors such as quality, price and value for money. The Perpetual Adolescents will also need their sense of insecurity to be carefully handled in marketing communications. Traditional and familiar points of reference and scenarios will be most effective when addressing this audience. The Adult Controllers will respond most readily to approaches which flatter their sense of being in control and which appeals to their sense of excitement and receptiveness to new ideas.
Conclusion – the future of the Inner Child
The neotenous tendencies in advanced industrial societies are likely to continue and deepen in the foreseeable future. As disposable income increases and cultures become more complex, young people are likely to mature later and consumer markets in playful sectors, such as the arts and entertainment, are likely to grow in importance. These trends will present opportunities and challenges for marketers and researchers. The increase in playfulness will give rise to new opportunities in specific markets in the leisure sector. But it will also result in the elaboration of playful dimensions to a range of functional products. Part of this trend will be an increasing emphasis on the aesthetic dimensions of products and services. Just as uncompromising Modernism characterised much of the design of the Twentieth Century, so the dominant themes of design in the Twenty First Century are likely to include the childlike fusion of reminiscence and novelty that defines retro fashioning. The widening of consumer choice and the growing complexity of that choice will force many consumers to rely even more on intuitive, interactive and even playful methods of making choices between brands. It is often remarked that consumers’ increasing engagement with brands contrasts with declining response rates for research. As marketers face up to the challenge of consumers demanding more fun and interaction from their brands, researchers must redouble theirefforts to engage with the Inner Child.
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