What you buy says a lot about you, according to a new study from the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. Consider this goal: to spend more time with your family. If you seek out products that expand the amount of quality time you have to share – say, a football to throw around in the yard – you’re a “promotion-focused” consumer. Alternatively, if you are “prevention-focused,” you’ll seek out timesavers, like a new dishwasher, that don’t reduce the amount of time you have to spend with your family.

“We extend this line of research by identifying for the first time the cognitive process that appears to underlie these regulatory focus effects. We propose that because individuals who adopt a promotion focus concern themselves with positive outcomes, they are led to perceive the surrounding environment as safe and benign,” write Rui Zhu (University of British Columbia) and Joan Meyers-Levy (University of Minnesota).

“In contrast, individuals who adopt a prevention focus concentrate on negative outcomes, which may alert them that the environment is threatening and that specific actions are needed to ensure against negative outcomes,” they explain.

In two studies, the researchers extend understanding of these consumer impulses by examining how promotion- and prevention-focused individuals respond to advertisements. They found that individuals who adopt a promotion focus think more about the relationships among products and have an easier time connecting many disparate elements into higher level abstractions. In contrast, prevention-focused consumers respond better to unambiguous advertising, pay more attention to specific pieces of data, and are more sensitive to detail.

Rui (Juliet) Zhu and Joan Meyers-Levy, “Exploring the Cognitive Mechanism that Underlies Regulatory Focus Effects.” Journal of Consumer Research: June 2007.