There is no question that watching a model perform a behavior often increases the likelihood that the observer will also perform the behavior. It is well established in the psychological literature that in many situations, modeling is effective in changing behavior, as illustrated in Consumer Insight 9.2. However, certain factors have been found to increase the likelihood that vicarious learning will occur. These factors can be divided into three groups: (1) model and modeled behavior characteristics, (2) observer characteristics, and (3) characteristics of modeled consequences.
Model and Modeled Behavior Characteristics. Several personal characteristics of observed models influence the probability that an observer will imitate the modeled behavior. Models who are found to be attractive may be sought out, whereas less attractive models may be ignored. Models who are perceived to be credible and successful exert greater influence than those who are not. In addition, high-status and competent models are more influential in determining modeling success.
Observers are also influenced by the manner in which the modeled behavior is performed. If the sequence of the modeled behavior is detailed very carefully and vividly, modeling effects tend to increase. The rate of learning also depends on the salience and complexity of the modeled behaviors. Interestingly, models who display a bit of apprehension and difficulty and yet complete the task are more effective than models displaying no struggle or difficulty. A reason for this was suggested by Manz and Sims:
It appears that an observer can identify more with a model who struggles and overcomes the difficulties of a threatening task than a model who apparently has no problem. A model who is seen as possessing substantially greater abilities may not be considered a reasonable reference point for the observer. However, experts who display little difficulty in completing a task (e.g., professional athletes) may serve as ideals to be emulated in nonthreatening situations.
Another factor that influences the effectiveness of models is the perceived similarity of the model to the observer. This finding supports the common practices of using models similar to people in the target market in commercials and attempting to increase similarities between customers and salespeople when hiring and assigning sales personnel. Many advertisers take advantage of these characteristics in developing commercials. These characteristics may also influence whether modeling aids in the diffusion of new products, an issue discussed in Consumer Insight 9.3.
Characteristics of Observers. Any number of individual-difference variables in observers can be expected to mediate successful modeling. For example, individual differences in cognitive processing as well as in physical ability to perform a modeled behavior may affect the process. Bandura suggests that in many cases observers who are dependent, lack confidence and self-esteem, and have been frequently rewarded for imitative behavior are especially prone to adopt the behavior of successful models. 14 However, perceptive and confident people readily emulate idealized models who demonstrate highly useful behaviors.
Perhaps most important is the value the observer places on the consequences of the modeled behavior. For example, if consumers value the social approval obtained by a model in the Grecian Formula (hair coloring) commercial, they are more likely to purchase and use the product.
Characteristics of Modeled Consequences. Just as operant conditioning places importance on the consequences of behavior, so does vicarious learning. Of course, in vicarious learning, the observer does not experience the consequences directly. Thus, a major advantage of vicarious learning for consumers is that they can learn effective purchase and use behavior while avoiding negative consequences.
Research has demonstrated that positively reinforcing a model’s behavior is a key factor in facilitating vicarious learning. In terms of consumer behavior, much fruitful research could be done on identifying appropriate reinforcers for various types of products. Currently, however, little is known about what types of positive consequences would be most effective to model. Similarly, for modeling applications that seek to decrease undesired behaviors, the most effective types of negative consequences to model in commercials are unknown. Although modeling has been demonstrated to be useful in deterring smoking, reducing drinking, reducing uncooperative behavior of children, and reducing energy consumption, many other areas of consumer behavior are unexplored.
Consumer Insight 9.2
Do Professional Models Make Women Feel Bad about Their Appearance?
Many cues in our culture may communicate to women and young girls that being thin and fit is a prerequisite to being considered attractive in our society. Professional models, such as Kate Moss, Heidi Klum, and Giselle Bündchen, and many TV and movie stars who appear in commercials and ads and grace the covers of magazines usually appear to be tall, thin, and fit. In fact, many modeling agencies will not hire fashion models unless they are at least 5’7” tall. Pictures of the models’ bodies are often computer generated and computer enhanced to appear thinner and more shapely. Even Barbie dolls may be a problem; if Barbie were life-size, she would be 5’9” tall and have measurements of 36-18-33.
Critics argue that these images have negative effects on many women and girls. Some suggest that eating disorders and self-esteem problems have resulted; 90 percent of the 8 million Americans with severe eating disorders are women. One study of 803 women found that, in 1985, 30 percent were dissatisfied with their appearance, whereas in 1995, 48 percent were dissatisfied. Increasingly, women believe there are two standards to serve: thinness and looking fit, according to the study’s author. Overall, 46 percent were dissatisfied with their weight; 40 percent with their muscle tone; 47 percent with their hips, buttocks, thighs, and legs; 51 percent with their waists and stomachs; and 25 percent with their chests, shoulders, and arms.
Do you think models used in ads and commercials have negative effects on women’s body images? Do you think this causes problems like eating disorders and low self-esteem? Is it appropriate to use computer-enhanced models to sell fashions, exercise clothing and equipment, and cosmetic surgery?
Consumer Insight 9.3
Diffusion of Innovations: A Modeling Process?
Modeling plays a prime role in spreading new ideas, products, and social practices within a society or from one society to another. Successful diffusion of innovations follows a common pattern: (1) New products and behaviors are introduced by prominent examples, (2) the product/behavior is adopted at a rapidly accelerating rate, and (3) adoption then either stabilizes or declines, depending on the product/behavior’s functional role. The general pattern of diffusion is similar, but the mode of transmission, the speed and extent of adoption, and the life span of innovations vary for different products and forms of behavior.
Modeling affects adoption of innovations in several different ways. It instructs people in new styles of behavior through social, pictorial, or verbal displays. Some observers are initially reluctant to buy new products or embark on new undertakings that involve risks until they see the advantages gained by earlier adopters. Modeled benefits accelerate diffusion by weakening the restraints of more cautious, later adopters. As acceptance spreads, the new gains further social support. Models not only exemplify and legitimize innovations, they also serve as advocates for products by encouraging others to adopt them.