• Kendra Oliver

Stay calm and think on! How “hype” can impact decision-making

Updated: Apr 6

Have you noticed that you have been buying more things off of Instagram? What about those TikTok leggings that everyone was talking about (#tiktokmademebuyit)?

I, for one, have found myself buying necklaces, clothing, and all sorts of other things from social media since the pandemic. A recent study found the growing importance of social media marketing since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The findings showed that consumers had increased their utilization of social media to identify products, collect information on products, evaluate products, and make product purchases.

The OG of this tactic is the "influencer." An influencer, as you likely know, is someone with sway over a target audience. Influencers have specialized knowledge, authority, or insight into specific subjects that guide consumer behavior. Their pre-existing presence in a niche gives them credibility through which they can "hype" specific products. Hype is both a thing and an action. Hype is extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion, but it is also important to remember that it can also be a verb. This means that someone, in this case, the "influencer," is promoting or publicizing a product or idea intensively, likely to the point that they are exaggerating its importance or benefits.

So how does hype impact your (or my) decisions making? We all make decisions daily, and our environmental conditions influence this process. At its core, decision-making is making choices by identifying a decision, gathering information, and assessing alternative resolutions. Thinking of a decision as a step-by-step process can help make decisions more deliberate, informed by relevant information, and help clearly define alternatives. However, rarely in real life is decision-making so cerebral.

Decision-making is complex and plays off of our biases. Cognitive biases can affect decision-making abilities, limit one's reliance on problem-solving skills, and even make one question the reliability of their memories and experiences. When making decisions, we likely rely heavily on intuition and use flawed reasoning at some point. Both positive and negative stereotypes and biases exist in every culture and community. No matter how progressive we think we may be, we are all guilty of stereotyping or operating under bias at some point or another. Likely, these underlying assumptions and perceptions are implicit. The Kirwan Institute defines implicit biases as "the attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, decisions, and actions. These implicit biases we all hold do not necessarily align with our own declared beliefs." Emotional solid attachments or investments make cognitive biases even harder to overcome.

So why do social media and the "hype" model of marketing work so well? And why does it mess with our decision-making? In an article written by Sarah Donawerth she outlines how influencer marketing plays directly into humanity's natural desires for belonging, our need for social conformity, and our informational processing functions:

  • Authority Bias: Authority bias is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion. Influencers can market effectively because they appear authoritative to consumers. Follower count and engagement show that the influencer is more successful than others. An influencer's authority within one area may spill into other areas of expertise. This is the "halo effect."

  • Cognitive overload or Information overload: Information overload describes the excess of information available to a person aiming to complete a task or make a decision. This impedes the decision-making process, making a poor (or even no) decision. Instead, a person's brain will implement a series of filters so that certain information gets their focus and attention. In decision-making, these filters or cognitive biases help the person sort through the information to find what matters to them. One way to do this is to rely on the information presented by the influencer rather than searching for alternative information sources.

  • Social Proof and Cultural Conformity: Social proof is both a psychological and social phenomenon where we tend to copy the actions of those around us to try and conform to a behavior that we believe in fitting the situation. When an influencer promotes a brand or product, they can create a psychological conformity effect on their followers. Seth Godin coined "consumer tribes" to translate this psychological concept into retail, marketing, and e-commerce.

  • Reciprocity Bias: Reciprocity bias describes the impulse to reciprocate what others have done towards us. The desire to return favors, pay back debts, and treat others well could have been a decisive evolutionary advantage for humans as it engenders cooperation. This is also a part of the psychology of influencer marketing because there is a perceived personal connection.

  • Attractiveness Bias: This type of cognitive bias references the tendency to see attractive people as more intelligent, competent, moral, and friendly than unattractive people. A person may assume that a good-looking influencer is more personable or engaging, impacting their authority and influence.

  • Priming: Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus without conscious guidance or intention. It is frequently used in advertising. Achieving an initial action, such as following an influencer, makes the second (purchasing) action easier to occur.

  • Exposure effect or familiarity effect: People tend to prefer things or people more familiar with them than others. Repeated exposure increases familiarity. This concept directly affects our allegiance to a cultural group or influencer. The more exposure to the same content, the more likely we will accept and engage with the content. Eventually, we assimilate the messaging into our own beliefs, views, and preferences.

So the good news is that I'm not alone. A study has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered consumers' product needs, shopping behaviors, purchasing behaviors, and post-purchase satisfaction levels. This study identified that consumers had increased their virtual shopping and online purchasing behaviors. However, they found it more difficult for marketers to gain customer loyalty because consumers' satisfaction levels have decreased. This very much resonates with my own experiences as well.

One way we as consumers can become more satisfied may be to identify and separate ourselves from the psychological biases of social media marketing by identifying hype and supporting critical thinking about possible outcomes, objectives, and options. There are many other ways to combat hype and bias in decision-making.

Or we can just get off of social media...

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