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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Lay Theories of Manipulation: Do Consumers Believe They are Susceptible to Marketers’ Trickery?


Persuasion is hard. Then why do some consumers think that marketers can easily manipulate them? Three studies and an internal meta-analysis suggest that consumers’ beliefs about marketing manipulation are rooted in humans’ deeper and older psychology—motivation to understand life events. Consumers higher in motivation to make sense of their environments not only detect persuasion where it exists but also where none (make false-positive errors). Whereas consumers higher in sense-making motives believe that manipulations are more effective, objective sense-making abilities negatively predict false manipulation detection. We also tested how manipulation beliefs are related to personality traits, gender, and age. These findings help 1) understand the origins of lay (false) beliefs about the marketplace and persuasion in general, 2) consider marketing segmentation strategies to reach out to particularly skeptical consumers, and 3) understand ways to attenuate false-positive beliefs and foster accurate persuasion detection, which is critical in the era of infodemic.

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