Article: Sunday, 29 September 2019

Technology is advancing at lightning speed in domains such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and information technology. Complex tasks, such as driving or filing tax returns, are increasingly delegated to machines and algorithms. Technological buzzwords have entered everyday language, and technological companies dominate international stock markets. Technology shapes behaviour of consumers and their consumption. Dr Eugina Leung, who recently completed her PhD at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), conducted in-depth research to explore the interplay between technology and consumer behaviour. Despite the many benefits of smart technologies, the interplay poses opportunities and challenges for future development. 

Eugina explains: “If we can better understand how technologies interact with us and the world around us, smart technologies could improve every aspect of life. My research shows how technology shapes identity-based consumption and judgment across different technological domains, from automation, through search algorithms, to digital technology. It reveals how technology affects the way we learn about ourselves and the world around us."

"If we can better understand how technologies interact with us and the world around us, smart technologies could improve every aspect of life."

Automation and internal attribution

The future promises more intelligent gadgets and products for convenience because companies often adopt a technology-centric approach when designing technological products – whatever the technology can do, they will stretch its limit. However, the research showed companies could benefit more if they adopt an approach informed by consumer behaviour.

Eugina: “We studied a variety of items in six categories of products and activities (from driving to cooking) and found that individuals who strongly identify with a particular social category actually resist automated features. Consumers generally appreciate automation with one crucial exception: when some aspect of the promised convenience undermines their own self-image as a skilled producer or practitioner. We found consumers not only care about the outcome, but also the process they followed to achieve that outcome. A less automated product allows more potential for internal attribution, which means people are more able to take credit for their work. Automation may call that credit into question.”

So if a product supports a task that the customer can take pride in, marketers should take people’s motives into account, then communicate the benefits of automation in a way that matches their target audience’s goals.

Search engines updating consumers’ beliefs

Search engines have revolutionised access to information and people increasingly use them to find out more about personal issues such as health, finance and politics.

They use search engines to find information that informs their judgments and helps refine their beliefs. Eugina: “We found that there is a disconnect between the way people use search engines, and how search engine algorithms operate, resulting in narrow search queries and results that limit the updating of existing beliefs. When people are asked to consider the possibility, people believe that online searches can influence beliefs, but they do not believe that such searches can spontaneously update beliefs. More importantly, motivating people to use broader search terms, and broadening the search results displayed by search engines will lead to greater and more comprehensive updating of consumers’ beliefs and will influence subsequent choices for products.”


The trend is for consumption to shift towards the digital realm – this is ‘dematerialisation’. But at the same time, sales of printed books are growing, and vinyl records are making a remarkable comeback in the music industry. Eugina Leung’s study proves that material products are better able to provide identity benefits than dematerialised products, and customers motivated by their own sense of identity have a relative preference for material products. So the marketing of dematerialised products deserves careful attention and should take into account people’s motives, as well as communicate the benefits of dematerialisation in a way that matches their target consumer’s goals. For example, companies targeting ‘strong identifiers’ could imply that having a digital collection of books about a fictional hero signal the owner is a hard-core fan who likes to have the whole collection close at hand everywhere and at any time.

"The internet, dematerialisation, automation, artificial intelligence and human enhancement expand the range of options for individuals holding on to their identities."

Technology, self-verification and identity

Technology can both facilitate and hinder the process of self-verification – how people monitor their own progress towards becoming a particular type of person. The internet, dematerialisation, automation, artificial intelligence and human enhancement expand the range of options for individuals holding on to their identities, and for positive self-verification, as well as expand the limits that technology can place on the same processes.

And as hi-tech products becoming more and more commonplace, and as consumers increasingly rely on amazing machines and algorithms, new areas of interest are fast opening up for researchers interested in identity. How does the internet allow people to monitor their progress towards being the kind of person they want to be? Can artificial intelligence limit the construction of new identities – or the development of existing ones? What new questions arise when humans are able to use technology to alter their physical and mental capabilities?

Dr. Gabriele Paolacci

Associate Professor of Marketing

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)

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Prof. Stefano Puntoni

Professor of Marketing

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

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Dr. Eugina Leung

Assistant Professor

Tulane University

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