Looking at Personality and Consumer Behavior through a Modern Lens

Mar 3, 2021

Market research has evolved over the last two decades to keep pace with the speed of business decision-making. In the early 2000s, the advent of much faster and more efficient online panels made it easier for clients to get information quickly, instead of having to wait weeks and even months for traditional panels and surveys to wrap.

Now, as the speed of business accelerates even more and clients readily adopt agile principles to optimize both product and creative development, market research is adapting once again to ensure clients are not only getting the insights they need but recommended actions that can help them meet business objectives.

One of the most commonly accepted approaches in market research that’s particularly deserving of fresh perspective is the use of personality traits to understand consumer behavior and develop personas. New scientific understanding around personality traits and how they can be combined with needs measurement is informing a modern view of consumer behavior and helping researchers come up with more concrete and immediate next steps for businesses to take.

Here’s a closer look:

The neuroscientific basis for the Big 5 personality traits

Psychologists began using the Big 5 personality traits—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (also referred to as OCEAN)—for concept and survey-based analysis in the 1990s. Every person exhibits all five, and by no means are these a complete list of traits. But by and large, the Big 5 traits tell market researchers about the patterns that are likely to influence how people think, act, and feel.

Here’s how each trait is defined:

  • Openness – open to a variety of new experiences
  • Conscientiousness – organized & thoughtful, has a set of guiding principles and/or a sense of duty
  • Extraversion – likes stimulation, especially in the company of others
  • Agreeableness – shows compassion, is polite and cooperative
  • Neuroticism – emotionally sensitive to environmental or outside stimuli

Within the last decade, there has been good neuroscientific evidence through functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and hormone, electrophysical, and other analysis that helps us understand what the patterns in personality traits are telling us. Currently, there is a strong connection between dopamine and the traits of openness and extraversion, while serotonin is related to conscientiousness, neuroticism, and possibly agreeableness, though it hasn’t been tested as much for this trait.

As scientists conduct additional analysis, they’ve also discovered two meta traits—plasticity and stability—that both relate to the pursuit of goals. Plasticity is the ability for people to be open and able to change their interpretations based on new information, whereas stability is the knack people have for staying the course and not being disrupted. Since in the world of consumers nearly everything is a goal—making a purchase, using a service—it’s important to understand how plasticity and stability, along with the Big 5 traits, affect a consumer’s pursuit of goals.

Measuring personality traits today

Personality traits remain highly predictive of a lot of different consumer behaviors and motivations that marketers care about, such as preferences for food, restaurants, music, and brands; credit card and social media usage; engagement with ads; and responsiveness to the design of various products. When combined with needs measurement, such as Kevin Ford’s classification of 12 consumer needs discussed in Brands Laid Bare, researchers can successfully uncover the fundamental goals most likely to be pursued by different consumer groups.

There are multiple ways to measure personality traits today, including traditional rating scale assessments to measure latent unconscious factors and language-based assessments to elicit unstructured responses. Simpler approaches that don’t involve talking to people, such as likes on Facebook, the way a device is used, or even eye tracking, can also be used to derive behavioral data.

With language-based assessments in particular, AI algorithms can uncover personality traits in connection with consumer needs. With some calibration, researchers can index to a category or general population to then identify the dominant personality traits. Though an analyst needs to be involved to interpret the data, initial results can be determined in minutes, as opposed to weeks or months for other kinds of segmentation or psychographic measurement—thus satisfying agile principles.

It’s all about action

So what does this mean for you?

Online panels continue to be the go-to if you want consumer insights fast. But online panels alone can’t deliver the true next-step actionability that your business needs to meet its objectives. Instead of a general path forward, businesses need concrete steps that can be taken right away with one or more stakeholders, whether it’s strategizing with the product development team or creating a design or creative brief.

Combining personality traits with needs helps market researchers narrow down the specific actions businesses need to take, such as what to say, what to avoid saying, what colors to consider, or what visual inspiration to use. Actions can be curated for everything from determining the right elements and features of product design to considering the channels on which to advertise or the time of day to reach consumers in a media buying strategy.

A communication tool that can measure conscious and unconscious consumer behaviors, create detailed consumer personas, and—perhaps most importantly—recommend next-step actions for a particular audience segment meets the business needs of today. It’s not enough just to have an understanding of your consumers. Rather, it’s the unconscious measurements of personality and needs, combined with conscious measures, that allow researchers to unlock additional actions.

You can also broadly apply a tool like the above to your brand’s communications to help validate the personality that’s coming across. With the information and recommendations you receive, you can tweak various aspects of your messaging or product design to better resonate with the personalities of your target consumers.

Taking the modern approach

To summarize, looking at personality and consumer behavior through a modern lens means:

  • Grounding information in neuroscience
  • Using indirect measurement of unconscious factors
  • Maintaining an agile mindset built on speed and cost-effectiveness
  • Combining information with direct measurement to develop a holistic understanding of consumer groups
  • Going beyond consumer understanding to immediate next steps

As the study of the human psyche develops and deepens, no doubt the field of market research will evolve again to allow businesses to successfully tap into both conscious and unconscious behaviors and motivators, and act on ever more fine-tuned recommendations.

Learn how you can create more effective and actionable personas by leveraging personality data in our latest eGuide.  

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