How Do People Respond to the Idea of Educational Signaling?

There’s an ongoing debate among social science policy wonks about whether the value of a college education is concentrated in the actual skills you learn, or in its “signaling” power — i.e. the degree to which a diploma tells people you’re not a moron. One thing that’s still relatively unknown is how the concept of signaling influences people’s decisions about attending post-secondary institutions. Will people like that they can have their sole focus be on getting a crucial piece of paper, or will they be turned off by the fact that their learning isn’t that important?

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology hints at a piece of the answer. The researchers examined how a person’s implicit beliefs about their ability to change influenced how they responded to advertisements that either made a signaling appeal (“using this will make you look smart”), or a self-improvement appeal (“using this will make you smarter.”) They found that when people didn’t believe they could change, they were more drawn to signaling appeals. On other hand, when people believed they were capable of changing, they were more likely to be drawn to self-improvement appeals.

In two studies, we propose, and find, that consumers who believe their personal qualities are fixed and cannot be developed through their own efforts (entity theorists) are more responsive to an advertising message that incorporates a signaling appeal for the brand (“there’s no better way to show others that you have a modern up-to-date sense of beauty”). In contrast, we find that consumers who believe that their personal qualities are malleable and can be developed if they exert effort (incremental theorists) are more responsive to an advertising message that incorporates a self-improvement appeal for the brand (“there’s no better way for you to learn how to have a modern up-to-date sense of beauty”).

The first experiment used ads for eye shadow, but the second experiment involved a product that helps you do better Microsoft Excel analysis — something more akin to purchasing education. Though the results of the study are fairly intuitive — people who think they can’t get better would rather appear better than try to get better — the findings suggest something interesting about the effect of perceptions on enrollment patterns. Students who believe they can change tend to be the extreme achievers who populate the long tail of the “achievement” distribution. The reason for this is that when you believe your ability is fixed, any failure becomes a disaster because it proves that you are permanently bad at something. You end up taking fewer risks and shying away from challenges. On the other hand, when you believe ability is malleable, failure is merely an indication there is something you should and can get better at.

The result is that colleges ought to attract more high-achieving incremental theorists by playing up their high self-improvement value (“you learn a lot at Harvard”) rather than their signaling value (“A Harvard degree will take you places.”) I don’t know how likely it is that this difference is significant, but theoretically in the long run schools that do more to signal their signaling value will attract more entity theorists, have lower achievement than a comparable school that emphasizes self-improvement, and see their relative signaling value will go down.

Of course one thing colleges could do is simply push both their signaling and self-improvement value, a strategy the researchers suggest could be very useful for driving beneficial behavior in realms beyond beauty or higher education.

Dual ad appeals might also be appropriate for non-profit organizations and social marketing contexts. For example, appeals for immunizing children might use a signaling appeal for entity theorists: “Show you are a Mom who knows what’s best for your child by immunizing your son or daughter against common childhood diseases.” And, for incremental theorists, a self- improvement appeal could be most effective: “Learn how to be a better Mom who knows what’s best for your child by asking your doctor how to immunize your son or daughter against common childhood diseases.”

Better targeting of individual preferences for “showing” or “being” could also help people make better financial decisions (“be/show you’re responsible by enrolling in a 401k”) or eat better (be/show you’re healthy by not eating at Wendy’s.”) The tricky part is finding out who’s an entity theorist and who’s an incremental theorist. The problem wouldn’t exist if we lived in a fascist utopia full of mandated social psychological exams, but since that’s not the case the best solution is probably to push employers and non-profits to do a little more short and simple psychological profiling of the people they deal with.
Park, J.K. & John, D.R. (2012). Capitalizing on brand personalities in advertising: The influence of implicit self-theories on ad appeal effectiveness Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.05.004


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