The relationship between self-concept and consumers product choices has been studied intensely by marketing researchers. Consumers chose products not just for their functional use but also for their symbolic meaning (Belk, 1988). Products can convey a consumer’s personality (Belk et. al 1982; Bem 1972; Tucker 1957). Consumers can communicate an image about themselves by associating with certain products as well as by dissociating from certain products. Researchers argue that self-concept is a consistent, stable self-view which influences consumers choices (Birdwell 1968; Levy 1959; Ward and Broniarczyk 2011). Consumers are motivated to buy products that communicate an image which is congruent to their own self-concepts (Birdwell 1968; Levy 1959; Sirgy 1982). Recent research has shown that self-concepts can be challenged or threatened and in such cases, consumers are motivated to maintain a stable sense of self. They achieve this goal by making highly symbolic product choices which help them reassures their held self-concept (Gao et al. 2009).
Youth is of value to human beings. Old age is inevitable, yet people try to extend their youth as long as they can. In western countries, many industries, such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals etc. are thriving on consumers’ desire to stay young. Consumers have an attachment to their young-self. Age-related changes pose threat to the desired young-self.
Aging is a natural process that people fight. To better understand the transition from youth to old age, we introduce the concept of transition-self. Transition-self is an intermediate phase between the young-self and the old-self. In this paper, we propose the conceptual model of transition-self which describes how consumers adjust to the process of aging through marketplace consumption and behavioral changes. The model is divided into four phases. At each phase, when the self-concept is challenged or threatened, consumers achieve the goal of maintaining a stable coherent sense of self through three psychological processes – self-assimilation (maintain self-consistency), self-accommodation (accepting and making changes), and self-balance (maintaining a consistent self but accepting changes when necessary) (Sneed and Whitbourne 2003; White and Argo 2009). Consumers navigate the marketplace to cope with threatened self-concept through various consumption activities. We have categorized these consumption activities in two – direct coping strategies (marketplace consumption and behavioral changes) and indirect coping strategies. Direct coping strategies help recover from the shaken self-concept by directly affecting the threatened characteristic of the self, whereas indirect strategies affect some other characteristic of the self, other than the threatened one thus help in recovering overall confidence in self-concept (Gao et al 2009).
This research extends the existing work in significant ways. First, we present the conceptual model of transition-self to help explain how consumers adjust to the aging process. Second, we describe the coping strategies through consumption activities which help consumers to restore their stable sense of self.
The roadmap of the paper is as follows. First, we will explore the current literature on the relationship between self-concept and consumer choice. Second, we will discuss how increasing age poses threat to the young self-concept. Third, we will describe the model of the transition-self in four phases. At each phase, we will describe the specific threats to the self-concept, consumers’ beliefs, active self-views, and coping strategies used at different levels (direct and indirect). Finally, we will conclude our paper with suggestions to improve the model and its importance in developing our understanding of the
Self-concept is defined as “cognitive and affective understanding of who and what we are” (Schouten 1991). It is a person’s beliefs about himself, his personal attributes, who he is (Baumeister, 1999). It is a multi-dimensional construct with various components – actual self-image – how a person perceives himself; ideal-self – how a person would like to perceive himself (Belch 1978; Belch and Landon 1977); social self-image – what a person believes how others perceive him (Sirgy 1979, 1980). Among all the expressions of self, most important constituents of self-concept are one’s own body, mind and social attributes (Baumeister, 1999). The perception and evaluation of one’s own body contribute towards one’s sense of self. Dissatisfaction with body image causes a threat to the self which leads to efforts to fix or change that threat (Schouten, 1991). One’s own mental capabilities define what a person can do or cannot do thus contribute towards sense of self (Carstensen & Hartel, 2006). Social attributes of a person, his social skills, social circle (family and friends) are another constituent of one’s self-concept. Confidence in body image, mental capabilities, and social skills boosts the self-esteem of a person.
Self-concept is influenced by two motives – self-esteem (tendency to seek experiences that enhance self-concept) and self-consistency (tendency to behave in accordance with the existing self-belief) (Epstein 1980; Sirgy 1982). People are motivated to boost their self-esteem and maintain their self-consistency. These motives mediate the relationship between self-concept and consumers choices (Sirgy 1982). Among the various theories describing this relationship, we will discuss the two, relevant to our idea of how consumers cope with age-related changes in a marketplace.
Grubb and Grathwohl (1967) argued that self-concept is important for people and they take actions to protect and boost it. Relating it to consumer behavior, they further stated that consumers will communicate their self-beliefs and enhance them by consumption of goods which serve a symbolic meaning to them and to others (Sirgy 1982).
The second theory of interest to us was developed by Sirgy (1981a, 1982a, 1982b) called self-image/ product-image congruity theory. According to this theory, characteristics of products activate self-schema involving self and product-image. Such images could be positive or negative. For example, a fun or adventurous activity (going to a rock concert) can activate self-schema involving self-concept of “I” and “youth”. This linkage could either mean that “I am a young person” or could also mean that “I am not a young person”. The strength of the belief will determine which linkage will be activated. People who believe that they can still do fun and adventurous activities will probably consider themselves “young”, on the other hand, people who believe that they no longer can do such activities will consider themselves “not-young”. Such evoked self-schema will also determine the value placed on that activity/ a product and its image for the person. Let us take the tickets to rock-concert as an example, if a person can relate himself with such fun and adventurous activity he will have a positive value for tickets (product), whereas if a person can’t relate to such activity, he will have a negative value for tickets (product). This self-image/product-image congruity determines whether a consumer will purchase the tickets or not. This relationship is mediated by self-esteem and self-consistency.
Consumers will be motivated to purchase a product which has a positive value (positive product-image) for them and which enhances their self-image (tendency to enhance the self-esteem) and they will avoid purchasing a product which has a negative value (negative product-image) for them and hinders their self-image. Similarly, they will be motivated to purchase a product with an image (either positive or negative) that is consistent with their existing self-concept (tendency to maintain the self-consistency) and avoid a product which challenges their self-concept.
People are motivated to avoid situations which pose threat to their self-concept (Ward & Broniarczyk, 2011). A threat to any aspect of self can result in emotional distress and leads to lower confidence in self-concept Gao et al (2009). Age-related changes pose threat to the desired ‘young-self’. First signs of aging are subtle such as few gray hair, fine lines on face and neck, dry skin etc. People often ignore or sometimes do not even recognize them as threats to their young self-view. These signs often go by unnoticed. With increasing age, signs of aging become prominent. These signs could trigger metacognition signals that “something is wrong with my self-concept” which reduce the confidence in the beliefs about one-self and identified as threats to the self-concept (Gao et al., 2009). People seek stability in their sense of self because the alternative could bring physical or psychological pain and this desire strongly motivates them to restore their threatened self. The studies on threats to self-concepts in marketing literature so far have examined only those threats that are temporary (Gao et al., 2009; Ward & Broniarczyk, 2011). These threats are caused by events which can be reversed or are active only for a short duration of time. Thus, the confidence in the beliefs about self is shaken for a short duration of time. But aging is a one-way process which moves from youth to old age. Thus, threats posed to the young-self are not temporary.
In restoring threatened self-concept, according to self-concept theories described earlier, consumers will choose products and services which will either enhance their beliefs in self-concept or are congruent to their held self-concept. Next, we will discuss the identity process theory involving processes of assimilation, accommodation, and balance that consumers adapt to adjust to aging at different phases of the process.
Self-assimilation is a process in which an individual interprets the new information in light of established cognitive and affective schemas about self (Whitbourne and Sneed 2002). The goal is to maintain a consistent self-view even in face of contradictory information. With the early signs of aging, people find it painful to acknowledge the changes in themselves. They still perceive themselves as young and healthy. Fear of getting old brings them the feelings of insecurity. To maintain a sense of self-consistency even in presence of inconsistent information (signs of aging), people seek out experiences and information that are consistent with their currently held view of young-self. They will associate themselves with products and services which will enhance their view of young self and will dissociate themselves with products which affirms their aging.
With time, age-related changes become prominent and are no longer a temporary threat to the young self-view which in turn becomes unstable and incoherent. The lack of internal coherence caused by fragmented self-concept leads to low self-esteem (Diehl et al 2001). When efforts to maintain the young-self can no longer reduce the emotional distress, consumers adopt consumption practices to accommodate these changes in the self. This process is called “self-accommodation” (Whitbourne and Sneed 2002). The self-concept starts to change and the new “old-self” is accepted.
The third process is called “self-balance” (Whitbourne and Sneed 2002) which is the combination of assimilation and accommodation of changes in the existing self-concept. Consumers no longer deny their aging self and their consumption activities are in accordance to accept changes and to maintain a stable sense of self.
Conceptual model of transition-self
The transition from maintaining the young self-view to accepting old self-view takes place over a long period of time. We conceptualize the process of adjustment to increasing age in a model of ‘Transition-Self’. Transition-self is the intermediary phase in which young self-concept evolves into old self-concept (see figure 1). This model is divided into four phases defined by chronological age. Each phase describes the following: a) age-related changes that take place during that time frame. These changes are both physical and psychological in nature; b) self-status – dominating self-view (young or old); c) beliefs – age-related beliefs that consumers have about self which drive their actions towards maintaining a coherent self-concept; d) actions – steps taken by consumers to maintain self-consistency; e) process – psychological process to maintain consistent self-concept; f) coping strategies (direct or indirect) – marketplace and behavioral consumption practices which help consumers to maintain coherency in their self-concept.
Prior research suggests that when self-concept is challenged or threatened, consumers first seek coherent information which could eliminate or subside the uncertainty in their self-view (Tiedens & Linton, 2001). However, availability of such information is not possible at all times thus consumers employ many direct and indirect consumption strategies to bolster their confidence in their self-concept.
To recover threatened self, direct coping strategies are employed which affect or enhance that aspect of the self-concept which has come under threat because of age-related changes (Gao et al., 2009). Associating with products and services that convey the message to oneself and to others that “I am young”, for example going to bars, rock concerts etc. Dissociating one-self from products and services associated with old-age, for example, in middle stages, many individuals avoid using hearing aids and dentures because these products convey the message that “I am old”. Individuals experiencing memory loss may practice memory games to keep their mental skills sharp and active. In later stages of transition, when maintaining the young-self is not the goal but to accept the old-self, consumers use adult incontinence products to make their life easier and make sense of their aging self. Consumers also take preventive and compensatory measures to maintain their health and well-being such as exercising, and regular health check-ups. Such behavioral changes also help in restoring their self-concept. All these consumption examples directly affect or help in maintaining the goal of the stable self at each transition phase. We have classified direct coping strategies into marketplace consumptions and behavioral changes.
Indirect coping strategies, on the other hand, help restore the threatened self by elevating the overall confidence by enhancing some dimension other than the threatened dimension of the self but contributes towards overall self-concept (Gao et al., 2009). For example, older adults often purchase expensive clothes and fast cars knowing they cannot hide or fix their aging self by them. Such expenditures make them happy and thus boosts their overall confidence in self.
Threats SK1 to the self-concept have adverse effects on the well-being of consumers. In each phase of transition-self, changes due to age cause negative effects on physical and physiological health (Levy et. al 2000). Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of these effects. Maintaining a positive sense of subjective well-being is important at any stage of aging. In the model, we will discuss some of the practices used by consumers to achieve this goal and propose mindfulness as an alternative approach to successful aging. Research has suggested that mindfulness can play an important role in stabilizing the uncertainty in the self-concept and can help deal with the changes in the body, mind and social life skillfully (Bahl et. al 2016). One of the biggest stereotype associated with old-age is mental incompetence – older adults are not creative, and they are stuck in their ways. Mindfulness can help increase cognitive flexibility in individuals which can help them generate new ideas, see things differently and look for different solutions to the same problem (Moore & Malinowski, 2009). Mindfulness can also help older-individuals in later stages of the transition to accept the new self-concept with self-compassion (Bluth & Blanton, 2014). They do not need to feel bad for themselves. They can accept the changes with love and set new goals which enhance their self-esteem and confidence. Mindfulness can help people in all the stages of transition, to design new and positive selves, and can help them become new and better version of themselves.
We collected data from a national survey of older adults through Qualtrics Panel. Our sample included 600 participants, both men, and women in the age group of (40-89). We used a quota sampling technique and grouped all respondents in the 10 age segments: 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79, 80-84, 85-89. Each of the 20 groups (2 gender X 10 age segments) has 30 respondents. We asked participants an open-ended question: “What are three things you do to make yourself feel younger? Please list and explain in a few sentences”. The responses provided great insights into how people feel about their changing self-view; what they do to maintain it; how do they accept the age-related changes in their body, mind and social life through various phases of transition. How do they accept their new “old-self” and what they look forward to? We will use this data while describing our model of transition-self.
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