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For Penn State Smeal’s Winterich, research is around every corner

June 26, 2017

Penn State Smeal College of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Karen Winterich says where most people see conversation starters and curiosities, she sees potential research studies. 

Considering Winterich is also a Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

“There are times when I have a conversation with someone or observe something and I’ll think, ‘I could study that,’” she said. 

Winterich’s research focuses on consumer behavior, with specific interests in the effects of consumer identities and emotions on consumer judgments and decision-making. A further focus is on examining the effect of cultural and moral identities on charitable giving and brand evaluations, as well as the impact of emotions on consumer decisions and consumption.

Those subjects represent broad strokes on Winterich’s research canvas. Sometimes every-day encounters influence the kinds of details those brushes produce. 

She has recently had three research papers accepted for publication in three different journals. On the surface, they represent disparate subjects. Dig a little deeper, however, and Winterich reveals that all three started as every-day happenings in her life viewed through the lens of her marketing training.

“Keeping the Memory but not the Possession: Memory Preservation Mitigates Identity Loss from Product Disposition”

Journal of Marketing 

For years, Winterich kept a pair of blue basketball shorts she wore as a junior high player in a big win over her rival school. Even though she no longer plays basketball, is years removed from junior high, and hadn’t worn the shorts for a decade, every time she thought about getting rid of them she hesitated, fearing once the shorts were gone so too would be the memories of her basketball career and the big win. 

She started realizing there were other items in her home she wasn’t using but hadn’t gotten rid of because she didn’t want to lose the memories she associated with the item. And then she recalled thinking, “I wonder if other people do this too?” 

To read more about this study, go to: http://bit.ly/2sdJs9J

She and two other researchers — Rebecca Reczek from Ohio State and Julie Irwin from the University of Texas at Austin — conducted three field studies and five laboratory experiments. They found that simply taking a picture of items of sentimental value can help individuals preserve the memories and identities they associate with the item, reducing the loss of self people may otherwise feel, and increasing the likelihood of donating the item to a nonprofit. 

“To Profit or Not to Profit? The Role of Greed Perceptions in Consumer Support for Social Ventures”

Journal of Consumer Research

Winterich said faculty members often receive emails from organizations asking if they have books to donate, so the company can distribute them to people in countries where books aren’t readily available. These organizations seem like they are charitable organizations when some are really for-profit companies that don’t highlight that fact. Colleague Lisa Bolton, a Professor of Marketing in Smeal, was also receiving these emails and a conversation left them wondering if, like them, people would be surprised by this for-profit orientation and alter their opinion of the organization.   

Winterich and Bolton, along with former Smeal Ph.D. student Saerom Lee, now a faculty member at University of Texas-San Antonio, conducted seven studies that described a for-profit social venture (e.g. Tom’s Shoes or Books4Cause) and a nonprofit to participants and explored whether they would be willing to support a for-profit social venture by donating to or purchasing from the organization. Participants demonstrated a strong aversion to supporting for-profit social ventures vs. nonprofits due to heightened perceptions of greed, though this aversion can be mitigated with strategic positioning.

“Conforming Conservatives: How Salient Social Identities Can Increase Donations”

Journal of Consumer Psychology 

It seems you can’t turn on the TV or scroll through your Twitter feed without seeing a mention of political ideologies. Winterich said she repeatedly saw references, veiled or otherwise, to “bleeding-heart liberals” and “heartless conservatives.” 

At a conference, a friend approached Winterich to see if she would like to collaborate on research related to the role of political ideology and social norms on donation decisions. The combination of the subject matter and the chance to work with an old friend was enough to convince Winterich. 

The research explored how much people who embrace conservative values would donate, as compared to someone who embraced liberal values. 

Winterich, along with Andrew M. Kaikati from Saint Louis University, Carlos J. Torelli from the University of Illinois and Maria A. Rodas from the University of Minnesota, conducted research on how likely conservatives or liberals were to donate under certain conditions. 

Conservatives, they found, give more to a cause when they are giving publicly in a group that they are a part of that includes a large percentage of liberals. If, for instance, a group of Penn Staters were gathered together and solicited for donations, a conservative Penn Stater would give more to the cause (e.g. lung cancer) if the conservative knew the other Penn Staters in the group were mostly liberals because he wanted to conform to giving levels of ‘bleeding heart liberals.’ 

A liberal, the research found, would not alter his level of giving if the roles were reversed because they were not trying to conform to the perception of ‘heartless conservatives.’ Though both liberals and conservatives can be generous, the research demonstrates how conformity can be used to increase charitable giving among conservatives. 

Winterich said she has an innate curiosity about why she does the things she does, and why others do what they do, that drives her research. She was motivated to pursue consumer research after working as a supermarket cashier in high school and being fascinated by the array of shopping influences and different types of consumers she observed. Though her research interests have developed outside the supermarket, she’s always thinking about the subtle behaviors she observes in herself and others and whether they might just be the next research question to study. 

“I keep a running list of ideas and while few of them get developed into a project, I can certainly see themes in my list and when an idea seems to have a surprising or counterintuitive twist, I start to dig a little deeper,” she said.

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