Prone to Progress: Using Personality to Identify Supporters of Innovative Social Entrepreneurship

Stacy Wood
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing
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Executive Summary
One of the biggest challenges in social entrepreneurship (SE) today is capturing stakeholder support—from donors, consumers, legislators, volunteers, and more. Identifying supporters is the first step to sustainable success, but it is a difficult one. In the “mass market,” where can a social entrepreneur look for support? This research explores whether some stakeholders may be prone—according to their personality type—to be more supportive than others. If so, social entrepreneurs may be aided by directing their limited marketing resources to the type of person who is most likely to be receptive. If not, they may know to avoid wasting time trying to single out any type and to cast their messaging net broadly. This question raises two competing hypotheses. First, it can reasonably be argued that personality will not be predictive; SE ventures are so diverse that their differences will render personality traits insignificant in predicting any individual’s tendency to support them. Second, it could be argued that personality will predict support because of personality effects seen in more general consumer research. What traits might matter?

The author first considers the “Big Five” traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) that form the fundamental basis of personality analysis. Prior research has shown that openness, or the proclivity to embrace learning and new ideas, is impactful in consumer innovativeness. However, SE innovation is also social. What might affect the social aspect of these ventures? In the Big Five, extroversion, agreeableness, or conscientiousness might be considered potentially influential. However, these traits—while identifying “social,” “nice,” or “responsible” people—lack a key dimension likely to affect social innovation—namely, empathy, a complex form of psychological inference that allows people to “step into another’s shoes” and imagine a perspective or experience that they themselves have not known. Thus, the author examines the Big Five traits and empathy.

Survey techniques were used to gather individual attitudes toward six different SE ventures, categorized into two broad types: socially oriented innovations and technologically oriented innovations. The data reveal that certain traits do influence support; however, it differs by type of venture: Openness underlies support of technological innovations and empathy underlies support of social innovations. Aside from agreeableness, the other traits are not influential. Further analysis shows this influence is not direct but is mediated through people’s perceptions of how much change the venture will create. In other words, more open people are naturally more prone to perceive bigger changes in technological ventures and empathetic individuals are naturally more prone to perceive bigger changes in social ventures. Moreover, for both types, more perceived change equals more support. This suggests that, to find those most prone to SE support, social entrepreneurs should look for open or empathetic people, but extroversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism do not matter. Furthermore, if they cannot identify people by personality trait, the results suggest that they can instead emphasize the magnitude of the change they hope to enact to increase the support of those who are not the type to perceive that change on their own.

Stacy Wood is the Langdon Distinguished University Professor of Marketing in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. Her research interests are in the psychology of innovation, exploring how consumers adopt, adapt to, or reject new things—from high-tech products to social trends. Professor Wood conducts both traditional behavioral experiments and new brain-imaging studies in decision neuroscience. She currently serves as a member of the editorial review boards of Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Marketing Research and is a past winner of two major research awards from the American Marketing Association (MSI/H. Paul Root Award, 1997; Louis W. Stern Award, 2005). Her work has been published recently in Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Marketing Research.

Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2012
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Stacy Wood
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