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McKinsey & Company

Customer Attribute: Thought Styles

Customer Attribute: Thought Styles

A customer is looking at a pair of shoes on your website. What are they thinking? What’s going through their head? What will make it easier for them to click “Buy”?

As it turns out, there is compelling evidence that liberal and conservative customers use distinctly different thought styles when solving a problem or answering a question, such as “should I buy this?” Knowing the differences can help you better connect a product or brand to a customer and market.

Think of it as aligning your business to the thought process of a customer in a manner that helps them make a decision. This goes beyond the information you think they need. It plays into the very nature of how a customer processes that information.

Thought style is one of many attributes explored in this newsletter and the forthcoming book. Together these attributes form a system for better understanding liberal and conservative customers so you can better align your business to how they think. Differences between the two groups draw upon contemporary research and our foundational customer model based on social anthropology.

Let’s start with the research.

John T. Jost is Professor of Psychology and Politics and a Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Data Science, as well as Co-Director of the Center for Social and Political Behavior at New York University. He leads research into the social psychology of liberals and conservatives and publishes “meta-analyses” of research, which identify consistent findings across many studies focused on the same topic.

In 2017, he published one of his meta-analyses, The Marketplace of Ideology: “Elective Affinities” in Political Psychology and Their Implications for Consumer Behavior. Differences in cognitive processing - thought styles - are one area of focus in the meta-analysis.

Jost looked at 88 research samples with over 22,000 participants between 1958 and 2002. The results showed that “intolerance of ambiguity and personal needs for order, structure, and closure were positively associated with conservative preferences, whereas integrative complexity, open-mindedness, and tolerance for uncertainty were positively associated with liberal preferences.” So, based on his analysis, you can think of conservative customers having a thought style that’s more contained versus one that is more open for liberal customers.

Jost also reviewed sixteen studies conducted since 2006, showing liberals having a more reflective thinking style. This result aligns with a separate study conducted by lead researcher Carola Salvi from Northwestern’s Creative Cognition Lab. Her team found that liberals tend to come to answers by considering a more free-flowing set of inputs with a higher incidence of having an “aha!” moment or unexpected insight. On the other hand, Conservatives employ a more methodical, incremental approach, which may also draw on intuition. Intuition is often formed through personal experiences.

The researchers from the Northwestern study point out that neither thought style was proven superior. Mark Beeman, a co-author of the Northwestern study, commented in an article, “It’s not that there’s a different capacity to solve problems. It’s more about which processes people end up engaging in to solve the problem.” Perhaps there are specific situations where one thought style works better than the other to solve different questions or problems.

While not directly related to thought styles, an additional study from the University of Nebraska compared how liberals and conservatives are affected by “wandering gaze.” Both groups were asked to fixate on a dot or target on a computer screen in the test. A face would then appear with pupils that would shift left or right. The liberal group consistently followed the gaze, even when told it would not help them stay focused on the target. The conservative group was far less affected by the wandering gaze image. It demonstrates - in a physical way - how liberal customers are more prone to bounce between inputs, while conservative customers show more focus without distraction.

The research shows differences in how conservative and liberal customers use different thought styles to solve problems or answer questions. These distinctions - more free-flowing versus more contained or more reflective versus more structured - serve as further evidence that these two customer groups require inputs that need to be potentially organized differently to optimize sales.

Correlating Research to the Customer Model

This delineation of thought styles between conservative and liberal customers correlates strongly with the foundational model of the American customer we use throughout our work here. The foundational model is based on the work of social anthropologist Mary Douglas. Here it is for reference.



As you can see, the research into the different thought styles supports the definitions of the two groups in the customer model. A more liberal egalitarian culture, by definition, promotes equality and “flatness” with rejection of hierarchy and structure. A thought style that is more wide-ranging and simultaneous fits with these attributes. A more positional culture aligns well with a thought style that is more rigid in its approach, relying on a more linear, controlled, methodical process.

Remember that all of these attributes operate by degree, which is why the model employs vertical and horizontal color shading. They are tendencies, not hard and fast rules.

The area where contemporary research and the model diverge is with the presence of the individualist foundation in the customer model. The research presented above does not contemplate any effect of individualism as a balancing force for more egalitarian or positional groups. Instead, the vast majority of research into differences focuses only on left versus right with some measure of degree.

Thought Styles in Business

One interesting area of focus for business is the difference in tolerance of ambiguity between the two groups. For conservative customers, a more structured and methodical presentation of information will likely work better. For liberal customers, information that is less structured, allowing for reflection, could be more effective.

These differences in information presentation can be tested with websites, email, digital advertising, and mobile applications at relatively low cost. Unfortunately, user experience or other communications tests rarely, if ever, compare liberal and conservative customer differences. Research may even involve recruiting participants from a local area convenient to the business, which will skew results based on the local worldview.

There’s also an interesting distinction between liberal customers processing a wide range of information almost simultaneously and conservative customers preferring intuition and personal experience. For liberal customers, this can mean processing a wider variety of inputs, such as expert opinion. On the other hand, conservative customers may prefer to focus on gaining first-hand experience or seeking like-minded views before committing to a purchase.

Guarantees and free trials certainly offer a way for someone to “try before you buy” and may be more important for more conservative customers. But, of course, they will also appeal to liberal customers, possibly to a lesser degree.

Personal experience for more conservative customers can also come in the form of seeing like-minded customers talk about their personal experiences with products - the customer testimonial. But in the case of thought styles, the people need to resonate with the potential customer considering the purchase. So it’s not just a matter of finding customers to talk well about the product; it’s finding the right people to whom conservative customers can relate. It’s not what they look like - it’s what their worldview is.

This idea of relating to the personal experience of like-minded people also extends to the use of celebrity endorsement. For conservative customers, the more logical choices will be sports figures, not actors or singers. Sports figures have the potential to appeal to both groups, depending on the sport and the individual. Actors and singers tend to resonate more with liberal customers as they tend to represent a liberal class. Actors and singers represent a form of royalty for more liberal egalitarian customers (a topic for a future article).

There are always exceptions. For example, cryptocurrency exchange projects a relatively conservative and individualist image and employs Matt Damon as a central celebrity spokesperson. Matt Damon is an actor, but he has also played characters who can appeal to a more conservative audience. FTX, another cryptocurrency exchange, projects a relatively liberal image and employs Steph Curry as a celebrity spokesperson. Steph Curry is an athlete but plays for a San Francisco team in a league that skews liberal compared to other sports. A detailed comparison of these brands in a previous article explores how liberal and conservative customers think about the future and technology.

Thought patterns and other attributes allow you to better connect your brand and products to how customers see the world - their worldview. There are differences and similarities that can be used to appeal to one group or both, depending on the business decisions you make about your market. The opportunities are there - you just need to consider customer worldview as a critical variable in your market. Achieving stronger results through better worldview alignment often costs very little or nothing.

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Subscribe to the Red and Blue Customers Newsletter Today

"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company