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Marketplace Metacognition and Social Intelligence


Consumers develop over their life span a pragmatic expertise in marketplace metacognition and marketplace interactions. Marketplace metacognition and social intelligence refer to people’s beliefs about their own mental states and the mental states, strategies, and intentions of others as these pertain directly to the social domain of marketplace interactions. Drawing from the recent study of evolutionary psychology, theory of mind, multiple life-span intelligences, and everyday persua- sion knowledge, I discuss the importance to our field of studying marketplace metacognition and social intelligence and of research-based consumer education programs on those topics.

T his is the fourth decade in which I have written for the Journal of Consumer Research, but this feels different.

This time I have an editorial mandate to be provocative and far-reaching about consumer research in the years ahead. The freedom is disorienting. Before, in JCR submissions, the social mind-reading task (how to anticipate and handle the mental activities of the notorious Masked Reviewer, aka “Sluggo”) became easier with practice and peer consultation (as do, I suppose, many domain-specific social mind-reading tasks). I am now an academic ancient, writing mainly to a young generation of scholars with different educational ex- periences than mine who face a different scholarly zeitgeist than the one shared by my research cohort. To stretch or excite those young minds, I must do social mind reading across generations. Those of you intending to do frontier research over the next decade may already have considered the implications of evolutionary psychology, theory of mind, and life-span theories of multiple intelligences. If not, read on. It is, in fact, the task of social mind reading across generations about which I want to talk.

*Peter Wright is the Edwin E. and June Woldt Cone Professor of Mar- keting, Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon (pwright@oregon.uoregon.edu). He was a professor at the Stanford Grad- uate School of Business from 1974 to 1997, and was also on the University of Illinois faculty and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Business School. He is a fellow in the Institute for Cognitive and Decision Sciences at the University of Oregon and a fellow of the Association for Consumer Re- search (ACR). He has also been president of ACR. He thanks Marian Friestad, research partner, for many ideas embedded throughout this essay. He also thanks Meg Campbell, Amna Kirmani, Eric Koch, KaRin Kri- corian, David Mick, and participants in the evolutionary psychology and theory of mind workshops of the Institute for Cognitive and Decision Sciences at Oregon for stimulating the thinking presented here.



The study of marketplace metacognition and social in- telligence is among the most important new research fron- tiers facing adventurous consumer researchers. The study of marketplace metacognition and social intelligence will, I believe, come to dominate the field of consumer research in the next decade or so. If so, that will be a healthy de- velopment, and substantive transformation will elevate the prominence of consumer research and marketplace studies among the social sciences. Marketplace metacognition refers to everyday individu- als’ thinking about market-related thinking. This includes people’s beliefs about their own and others’ mental states and processes and their beliefs about other people’s beliefs on those topics as these beliefs pertain to the specific domain of marketplace cooperation and manipulation. Marketplace social intelligence refers to the cognitive routines and con- tents dedicated to achieving marketplace efficacy that are accessible to individuals by virtue of functionally special- ized evolutionary processes and the development of this

functionally specialized expertise over an individual’s life span. Metacognition has been a loosely defined term. It was initially more closely associated with people’s self-knowl- edge and self-control than with their beliefs about others’ mental states, others’ psychological thinking about social influence, and achieving self-control over others’ social ef- fects. For example, in Alba and Hutchinson’s (2000) inte- grative discussion of consumer knowledge calibration, metacognition is conceived mainly as one’s knowledge about own knowledge.

Socially focused and self-focused metacognition about the

2002 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. Vol. 28 March 2002 All rights reserved. 0093-5301/2002/2804-0012$10.00


enduring human problem of cooperative exchange in a mar- ketplace is my topic here. How do consumers come to un- derstand the psychological beliefs, strategies, and intentions of marketing agents? How do they communicate about their own or others’ states of mind or psychological processes? How do they understand how to control own mental states as these relate to marketplace interactions and activities? How does this differ across generations, cultures, and in- dividual life spans? How does it adapt as significant changes occur in marketers’ communication and research technol- ogies? As the future study of marketplace metacognition and social intelligence progresses, its leaders will draw the- oretical inspiration from research on evolutionary psychol- ogy, theory of mind, folk-theoretic models of intentionality and social explanation, and the life-span development of multiple intelligences, including practical marketplace intelligence. The marketplace interaction per se will be treated as the focal domain of our theoretical analysis more so than in past research. Perhaps a field of scholarship called behav- ioral marketplace theory will emerge. It will provide an intellectually comfortable shared identity for researchers who have until now tended to identify themselves as study- ing either consumer behavior or marketing management/ tactics/research. Behavioral marketplace theory would parse the field of study in accordance with a central problem of human evolution—cooperative exchange in a market. This aligns the research problem with a theoretical premise about functionality in human problem solving and human development. We will begin by assuming that marketplace-focused so- cial intelligence is a central domain of specialized human thought, evolved and continually developing to handle the complexities of cooperative market-based exchanges, and then wholeheartedly study it as such. The study of consumer behavior and marketer behavior will converge much more than in past research and theory, becoming the study of dynamic interactive reflective marketplace behavior over time. Research will examine how consumers and marketers, in continual interaction with one another, develop and use their metacognitive beliefs about cooperative marketplace mind games to play out variants of those cooperative mar- ketplace mind games. My central proposal then is that a domain of metacog- nitive marketplace social intelligence or expertise represents the core of consumer development, consumer education, consumer participation in marketplace social interactions broadly conceived and, hence, consumer research. Acknowl- edging this will refocus our attention on the marketplace’s inherently social nature, and therefore on the necessity of capturing social interactive knowledge and thinking in our studies of consumers. Acknowledging it will also have a prosocial effect on the field of consumer research. It will enhance consumer researchers’ awareness of the importance of the phenomenon they study and of their potential influ- ence in disseminating knowledge on marketplace metacog- nition in an egalitarian fashion throughout society.


My research colleagues and I have been thinking along these lines for a while now, but an accumulation of recent writings has provided added inspiration. These writings share in common a strong emphasis on the social foundation of, and deeply social focus of, the human mind. They are each in their own way about everyday common sense and folk psychology. They include these four books: Interactive Minds (Baltes and Staudinger 1996), Machiavellian Intel- ligence II (Whiten and Byrne 1997), The Descent of Mind (Corballis and Lea 1999), and Intentions and Intentionality (Malle, Moses, and Baldwin 2001). As prelude to telling what these writings suggest to me about consumer research, I will briefly summarize what they are about. Each volume is an edited collection of the writings of a dozen or so imaginative scholars, and so no summary can do justice to the multitude of good ideas they offer. Interactive Minds: Life-Span Perspectives on the Social Foundation of Cognition (Baltes and Staudinger 1996) is a collection of 14 papers edited by Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger of the Max Planck Institute for Human Devel- opment and Education. The papers deal with the biological- evolutionary aspects of cooperation, collaborative peer problem solving and collaborative memory as a form of adult human development, the psychology of wisdom in adulthood, cooperative construction of expertise, and other issues related to mental capabilities and competency over the life span. Of particular interest is the underlying as- sumption that as adults age they gain enhanced pragmatic intelligence, as opposed to academic intelligence, by fo- cusing on deeply understanding a few high-priority problem domains. Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations (Whiten and Byrne 1997) is a fascinating collection of 14 papers edited by Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne of the University of St. Andrews. These papers further extend the fundamental Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis first aired in the 1980s by presenting more research on primate social strategies and by relating the hypothesis to human behavior. These papers collectively assert (a) that social in- telligence is qualitatively different from nonsocial intelli- gence because the social environment is more complex, less predictable, and more challenging than the ecological en- vironment; (b) that social intelligence preceded nonsocial intelligence in human evolution (and hence that the ability to think about other people’s minds is the essence of hu- manity); (c) that social intelligence is therefore generative of nonsocial intelligence, not vice versa; and (d) that the prodigious neurological evolution of the human brain is in- deed an outcome of its focus on human social complexities. The Descent of Mind: Psychological Perspectives on Hominid Evolution (Corballis and Lea 1999) is a collection of 14 equally fascinating papers on evolutionary psychology edited by Michael Corballis of Auckland University and Stephen Lea of the University of Exeter. Particularly inter- esting here are papers on the evolution in humans of a “theory of mind,” or metamind, and discussion of how de- velopment of and interactions among “deep social minds”


create a cycle throughout history wherein social mind read- ing supports egalitarianism and egalitarianism supports a cooperative, shared mind reading. Finally, Intentions and Intentionality: Foundations of So- cial Cognition (Malle et al. 2001) brings us fully into the realm of humans’ theories of each other’s mental world and interpretations of each other’s strategic behavior in social interactions. It is a collection of 18 papers edited by Bertram Malle, Louis Moses, and Dare Baldwin, all of the University of Oregon. The papers present an exciting and far-ranging picture of the folk-theoretic approach to studying how peo- ple interpret and explain human behavior. The folk-theoretic approach, unlike other causal judgment approaches to hu- man explanation, emphasizes and distinguishes people’s everyday explanations in which a social interactive context is explicitly considered (i.e., human-human social interac- tions, as opposed to, say, human-object interactions) and in which the judgment by one person of another’s intentionality is paramount.


One idea I derive from all this concerns the functionality of the human mind. The human mind has arguably evolved primarily to cope with the complexity of controlling the social world, not the physical world. The core problem do- main that human minds have evolved to deal with is es- sentially a social one. In this evolutionary process there have emerged, in addition to domain-general cognitive mecha- nisms, some critical domain-specific mechanisms that are functionally specialized to solve particular adaptive prob- lems. This contrasts with the traditional assumption in cog- nitive social psychology, and in consumer research for the last several decades, that we should hope to discover the mind’s general-purpose cognitive mechanisms, in the name of parsimony (and to make our research world much easier.) Suppose we assume instead that the mind develops toward a deep content-saturated understanding of social cooperation and that the common form of cooperative exchange semi- formalized as a marketplace is a key domain (at least, sub- domain) of social intelligence historically. Then we can and should concentrate consumer studies on that content domain. In so doing, we will intentionally delegate the task of search- ing out grand domain-general cognitive processes to the thousands and thousands of other researchers who will keep doing that. We are few, they are many! We will as a field make a collective bet that the specific domain of social intelligence we have defined as “our field” is worthy of focused study in its own right. Very few, if any, of the consumer research- ers alive today reading this will ever identify a domain- general psychological principle. Why not embrace the do- main-specific perspective wholeheartedly for a while, as a field, and see where it leads?


If we entertain this domain-specificity notion, where might it lead our thinking? Some time ago, Marian Friestad and I offered a characterization of a subdomain of social intelligence we called persuasion knowledge (Friestad and Wright 1994). The cornerstone of persuasion knowledge is, we conjectured, an individual’s beliefs about the mental states and psychological change processes that operate as mediators of persuasion or intentional social influence. In initial explorations, it became apparent that adults harbor

rich conceptions of mental states involved in persuasion (Friestad and Wright 1995). Subsequently, it is plausibly argued that rich content saturation is characteristic of a spe- cialized evolved domain of social intelligence. So, if we let ourselves speculatively elaborate a truly saturated domain- specific content of marketplace metacognition, what might

it contain? Consumers’ marketplace metacognitive social exper-

tise could include developed, or developing, metaknow- ledge of the following as they pertain directly to own and others’ marketplace mentalities: metaknowledge about (a) attention getting and holding (meta-attention),

(b) belief formation (metabelief), (c) remembering (me-

tamemory), (d) trust (metatrust), (e) desire (metadesire),

(f) emotion (metaemotion), (g) deception (metadecep-

tion), and (h) intention (metaintention). It could include

a person’s metaknowledge about enduring human traits

and about psychological fluidity and change processes. Deep marketplace metacognition could include metabe- liefs contextualized to common knowledge parsings of the types of stimuli marketing agents can manipulate or the contexts in which they operate. For example, an in- dividual’s marketplace metamind may parse the external environment such that it can understand and operate its own minitheory of advertising, minitheory of interper- sonal selling, minitheory of relationship marketing, min- itheory of pricing and bargaining, minitheory of visual design and display, and so on. If we acknowledge the essentially social nature of mar- ketplace-related thought and action, then to me that implies that we as a field wholeheartedly study consumers in ex- plicitly social contexts. We would not study people in con- texts where they face choices between inanimate tools, ob- jects, or devices presented in a socially sterile and apparently benign fashion, that is, in contexts where their social sus- picions and expertise are not activated. We should instead only study consumer choices made in contexts supersatu- rated with the social game-playing and consequences em- bedded in and characteristic of the marketplace. One key idea about a domain-specific intelligence or ex- pertise is that it is highly context sensitive. A domain-spe- cific intelligence is activated when it recognizes that the problem context it faces demands it, rather than demanding some other domain-specific intelligence. The implication to me is that the selection by researchers of a stimulus and environmental problem context is critical in determining whether or not a person’s deep marketplace intelligence is activated as they serve as a subject of study. For example,


persons presented with a context, stimulus, and problem that they construe to be an intellectual mathematical-deductive word problem akin to an academic exam will activate their mathematical logical word-problem-solving academic in- telligence. In that situation, their marketplace-related social intelligence, however deeply developed, will remain un- tapped, leaving their performance unguided by that domain- specific intelligence and researchers ignorant about what happens when it is activated. To give this perspective, consider a spectrum of influence- and-choice problem construals. At one extreme, people (e.g., consumers, human subjects) choose among inanimate ob- jects (physical products) presented to them in a context where the “presenter” is not represented as (nor construed as) a skillful, cunning practitioner of manipulative strategy. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people face choices that are highly complex in social terms, for example, where the decision alternatives per se are humans (e.g., service relationships) or human-object combinations (e.g., most contemporary service offerings, many types of product of- ferings) and where those human alternatives are themselves explicitly presented by human social strategists well known to be skillful at and intent on artfully manipulating the choice that is made. Or, to ratchet up the social realism even further, there are choices where the consumer’s (or subject’s) prob- lem is, in addition to all the above, that the agent making the presentation may only be suspected of having manip- ulative intent, and may in fact be a true disciple of Mach- iavelli who knows to display benign cooperation as a guise. The latter is the problem our minds have been developing metacognitive expertise to deal with; activating that knowl- edge is the only way to examine it. As I look back on our field, we seem often to settle for socially impoverished research settings. My line of specu- lation here argues that in the future we all eschew socially barren stimulus contexts. Or at least we make the construc- tion of the stimulus research context an explicit one, justified in terms of its relationship to the domain of human intel- ligence or expertise a researcher seeks to examine. The dif- ference, as I understand it, between a researcher who be- lieves only in domain-general cognitive mechanisms and in

a general intelligence and one who believes, as many more

are coming to, in the likelihood of domain-specific intelli- gences that are functionally specialized is that the former

tend to feel that any stimulus context is fine, whereas the latter believe that choosing the relevant stimulus context is crucial. For example, the former camp of researchers think

it is irrelevant whether the stimulus-choice options are sim-

ple objects presented via word problems or are complex human relationships presented by manipulative social strat- egists; the latter believe that difference may matter very much. I realize fully why researchers migrate toward simple so- cially impoverished situations to study; I have sometimes done so myself. Researchers, like those they study, engage in simplifying behavior if it minimally suffices. Now, how- ever, I advocate grappling with the complexities of highly


social marketplace situations. I do this self-consciously; I am toward the end of my research career and will not bear the burden. But, in a research career, better not to understand something complex than not to understand something simple (certainly more heroic at least).


Consumers can be educated about marketplace metacog- nitive matters, just as prospective or actual marketers can. The expertise or practical intelligence we speak of here is

a fluid one that continues to develop over an individual’s

life span, with individual differences of course. To position

our field to contribute to societal consumer education, how- ever, requires to some degree a reframing of research pri-

orities. To do this will make our field more egalitarian than

it has been. In our field’s infancy (up until now), consumer

social intelligence has not been treated as a competency in

the same way that other essential life topics are treated. But

it should be. In so doing our field of scholars will gain a

prosocial balance that we have not historically achieved. This is both a matter of how we behave as educators and professionals and of how we subtly shade our choices of research topics. Many of us active in consumer research over the last decades found academic homes in business schools, where we educate prospective marketers on how to think meta- cognitively and strategically about influencing consumers. We may believe our research will ultimately improve con- sumer decision making, negotiation skill, or welfare. But, the actual dissemination of metacognitive knowledge we achieve most often exclusively benefits those who intend to use it as marketers rather than as consumers. How can ed- ucational interventions on marketplace metacognition and social expertise best serve the developmental needs of young children, adolescents, young adults, and mature or elderly lay adults? Pondering this has been a natural extension of thought among those of us who began contemplating ev- eryday persuasion knowledge. As an example, in Friestad and Wright (2001) we call on the consumer research community, in collaboration with scholars from other disciplines, to develop programs for Preadult Education on Marketplace Persuasion Tactics (PREEMPT programs). These may be seen as marketplace literacy programs, related to but focused differently than the media literacy programs introduced worldwide over the last quarter century. It is enlightening to consider what the cur- riculum for such an educational program might be. Even- tually we would like to be able to postulate a developmental model for the acquisition of knowledge about marketplace persuasion and influence. While some research exists on how children acquire a theory of mind, on the changes that occur in middle childhood in children’s oral persuasive com- munication practices, and on children’s socialization as con- sumers, we still know little about how youngsters, teens,


and young adults acquire marketplace expertise with and without exposure to formalized instruction on the topic. Ideally, we would like to customize the curriculum of a PREEMPT program so its pace exploits the natural knowl- edge-acquisition process and anticipates how to direct and expedite metacognitive marketplace learning to a student’s benefit. To do so, we need a consensus about what consti- tutes the path of increased competence or expertise in the domain of marketplace persuasion knowledge. Second, we need a conception of developmental change in this type of knowledge. Does gaining added competence in this domain require learning concepts or skills in some sequence? If so, what sequence? What specific contextual domains could be highlighted in a PREEMPT program? For example, does a youngster need to focus first on one situation (say, TV ad- vertising), then extend to another (say, in-store shopping), and so on? Or do youngsters best acquire an interpretive framework by concurrent consideration of several market- place contexts for comparison and analysis purposes? How can we measure these types of social intelligence? What levels of knowledge or cognitive performance will we deem as threshold “competence”? Does marketplace intelligence

constitute a core domain of adult pragmatic intelligence that the vast majority of successfully aging people concentrate their minds on developing as they mature? Or does it become

a core domain of practical intelligence only among a seg-

ment of the adult population? Finally, thinking in these terms about consumers over their life spans leads to some fascinating questions about cross-generational matchups in marketplace mind games. Consider the interplay of the generational mismatches in marketplace mind games. Sometimes a youngster who is a

true novice is matched against a young adult who is perhaps

a seminovice marketer. Sometimes a youngster is matched

against mature adult marketers with children of their own and extensive metacognitive savvy. Sometimes young adult

seminovice consumers are matched against more expert adult marketers. Sometimes, however, the matchups favor the experienced consumer, as when young adult seminovice marketers (fresh college graduates) are matched against adult consumers with considerable marketplace expertise. Examining how such matchups get played out, especially

when the two players are aware of the expertise disparity,

is a wonderful future research activity. By treating market-

place metacognition as an evolved potentiality and a fluid pragmatic intelligence that individuals grow and refine somehow over the life span, research questions we have not been curious about crystallize as logical and necessary.


Do my reflections here converge in spirit with intellectual themes evident recently within the consumer research field? Certainly. The pioneering naturalistic phenomenological studies have played an important role in reawakening in me an appreciation for the marketplace’s wonderful richness


and its centrality to human lives. Indeed, within some of those inquiries, consumers’ own marketplace metacognitive thoughts have surfaced (e.g., Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988; Ritson and Elliott 1999; Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1990; Thompson, Pollio, and Locander 1994), al- though uncovering these was not usually the expressed goal. The impact of those studies is evident in research explicitly undertaken to examine consumers’ metacognitive knowl- edge. For example, Moore and Lutz (2000) conducted an interpretive study to augment their experimental work on children’s thoughts about advertising, as did Friestad and Wright (1995) to augment their structured study of meta- cognitive beliefs about persuasion. More directly, a growing body of research on everyday persuasion knowledge has developed, suggestive of a (small) movement. This work delves into a range of issues on the acquisition, content, accessibility, and measurement of marketplace metacogni- tive expertise (e.g., Aaker, Brumbaugh, and Grier 2000; Boush, Friestad, and Rose 1994; Campbell 1995, 1999; Campbell and Kirmani 2000; Friestad and Wright 1994, 1995, 1999, 2001; Kirmani 1990; Kirmani and Wright 1989; Koch 2001; Kricorian 1999; Obermiller and Spangenberg 1999). Also related is work on how people automatically access social knowledge to interact with machines (e.g., Moon 2000). The reflective essays of other recent JCR contributors also seem convergent in spirit with the current proposal. These include discussions of the historical human fascination with persuasion (McGuire 2000), the mind and consciousness (Zaltman 2000), causal attribution (Weiner 2000), collective intentionality grounded in individuals’ mental states (Ba- gozzi 2000), and fundamental consumer competencies (Baz- erman 2001; Wallendorf 2001). However, our field needs I believe to consolidate itself around a shared vision in order to elevate itself as a social science. We are few, very few, spread very thin in terms of research directions and intellectual allegiances, and in dan- ger of becoming so splintered as to remain more ineffectual as a science and a societal presence than we would all like. I have suggested a direction for that consolidation—focusing on the specialized functionally evolved domain of human knowledge and expertise I call marketplace metacognition and social intelligence. Let us make the marketplace our centerpiece, even to the extent inherent in my presumptuous invention of a new field—behavioral marketplace theory and research—in which the study of consumers’ metacognitive social worlds is inherently entangled with that of everyday marketers and vice versa. To me there is an attractive and compelling logic to this. What about the consumer education initiative? Does that follow logically, or just lead to a further splintering of our field? It follows logically, indeed inevitably, if one takes as a binding vision the study of the functionally specialized domain of thought and expertise. Should individual re- searchers then get directly involved in all the program de- sign, administration, and evaluation issues of consumer ed- ucation? That is a matter of individual choice, obviously.


But wouldn’t it be nice if a decade from now the field would be clearly acknowledged as a primary resource for, partic- ipant in, and even a leader of the creation of egalitarian research-based marketplace education programs in society?

[David Glen Mick served as editor for this article.]


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