Some background on the 24-item Consumer Wisdom Scale (CWS)

You have likely taken surveys before. The internet has made surveys very easy to create and share, and they are used widely for a variety of reasons – some commercially motivated, other times as part of formal research used to describe, categorize, and even predict behavior. So, while we are all familiar with surveys – be careful about how much faith you put in a given survey before you learn something about why it was created, and how it was actually developed.

Most commercial surveys are created quickly and informally and they won’t give you much personal insight. That’s not really what they are intended for. However, surveys created for formal self-assessment (“psychometric scale surveys”) must follow very specific and rigorous steps to ensure that they are reliable and valid. Reliability refers to how stable your individual score is. In other words, your score doesn’t change if you take it again in a couple of weeks or when you happen to be in an especially good (or bad) mood. Validity refers to making sure that the scale really reflects what it is intended to measure, that it can be used effectively by a broad population and that it predicts something new compared to existing scales. Developing a reliable and valid scale is a rigorous process that typically involves multiple formal research studies and thousands of research participants. Then, in the case of academic research, the specific data collection processes and analysis results must pass the scrutiny of peer review by other, anonymous researchers who have established experience with the theory and methods used in the development of the scale. Most academic research – including scale development research – is rejected at top journals, where the acceptance rate is typically less than 5%. And even when a new scale is accepted by a journal, it’s a process that takes years – with lots of stress, revisions, and often heartache along the way when things don’t turn out as you hoped. But, if you’re going to consider significant changes in your life based on the results of a survey, you want to know something about why and how it was developed. You want to know that it was developed in a systematic way, based on the latest scientific research, and motivated primarily by a goal to develop or test new theories or tools (academic research is notoriously detailed, formally written, and generally hard to read; but it is also the least biased of all forms of research about human behavior).

The Consumer Wisdom scale was developed by a team of colleagues that I led over a six-year period. First, we reviewed published research on wisdom from psychology, which has flourished in the last decade as a newer thread of the “positive psychology” movement. Positive psychology is a large and growing field of research that, over the last twenty years, has focused on happiness and other measures of well-being. This needed expansion of psychological research was, in turn, a response to decades of prior research which was focused on “abnormal psychology,” addressing topics like depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia. These, too, remain a valuable focus of modern psychology research. However, the insight by visionaries in the field, like psychologist Martin Seligman, was that healthy psychological functioning is not merely the absence of mental health disorders. Instead, there was and remains an opportunity to understand how people can live happier, more productive, and more joyful lives. Research on wisdom, given its focus on promoting well-being, was an obvious extension of that theme.

As research on wisdom has emerged, researchers have increasingly appreciated that wisdom means different things in different domains – and that it needs different measures for these different contexts. Being a wise parent isn’t the same as being a wise surgeon or wise accountant. Being wise socially or being a wise leader is different than being a wise consumer. And, to make it more interesting, researchers have found that while wisdom in different domains is conceptually related, being wise in one domain doesn’t necessarily – or even often – translate into wisdom in other domains. So, on the one hand, many shared characteristics of wisdom have emerged across domains. Regardless of the context, wisdom typically refers to having clear intentions, a sense of purpose and responsibility, appreciating the importance of gaining perspective, self-insight, humility, openness, and pro-sociality, amongst others. On the other hand, different people will demonstrate wisdom in some domains, yet not in others: the wise leader at work who can’t seem to manage her own health; the wise dad who has struggled with relationships at work. And, you can probably imagine many other variants on this theme. And, if you have a lot of good personal insight, you might recognize the ways in which you are relatively wise (and ways that you are not – yet, anyway).

Getting back to our own work, however, the point is that understanding the latest research on wisdom was an essential first step. Then, we started to interview wise people about their consumption habits. We recruited these interviewees through a multi-step nomination process. It turns out that it’s pretty hard to identify wise people; they are humble and even if they recognize their own wisdom (which often they don’t), they’re not going to raise their hands and say “pick me!” And, we needed to focus on people who were wise in the context of managing their spending and material lives; we needed to find wise consumers. So, we started networking in various parts of the country – in cities, small towns, and in rural communities. We knew what the characteristics of wisdom were in general, so we used these themes to guide us to places that would make it easier to find especially informative interviewees. Wisdom as pro-sociality? Go to Portland, Oregon. Wisdom as practical knowledge? How about farmers in upstate New York? Although evidence of wisdom and all of its dimensions can be found everywhere, each place we went was chosen to help us more easily explore all of the known dimensions of wisdom in-depth, while doing so through the new lens of consumption-specific behaviors (and, honestly, maybe a few of them also happened to be places I wanted to visit anyway).

Within each location we visited, we reached out to leaders of local organizations. These local leaders helped us identify people in their communities who reflected the characteristics of wisdom in general (see above) and who were especially adept with decisions related to consumption (how they choose, use, repair, maintain and, eventually, dispose of products). And then, as a final check, we spent quite a bit of time pre-screening each interviewee to make sure they fit what we were looking for, and to make sure they contributed to a broadly representative set of backgrounds and lifestyles. Over a six-month period, I conducted dozens of in-depth interviews in peoples’ homes around the US. Based on these interviews – and our analysis of over 500 pages of interview transcripts – we developed a theoretical framework of consumer wisdom. This research was published in 2018 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, one of the top journals in our field of consumer psychology.

We began development of the scale (a fancy name for a survey) after our theoretical framework was published. Over the course of three years, we developed, tested, refined, and validated what is now known as the Consumer Wisdom Scale. Our research involved dozens of studies and thousands of participants from the US and Europe. This research was published in 2021, once again in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The reason for sharing some of this background is to give you the confidence that investing time with our survey will be well worth it. To be clear, though, all scales have unavoidable limitations on their own. A useful psychology scale attempts to balance depth with practicality. Our scale includes only 24 items (each capturing a specific behavior), out of almost 200 that were initially considered. This is a fairly standard length for a multi-dimensional scale, optimizing what you can learn while still being easy to use. So, while we believe that these 24 items will give you a great snapshot of your current level of consumer wisdom, consider this a starting point. If you’re into art, think of this as the impressionists’ approach. The original 19th century impressionists painted quickly, usually outdoors, primarily trying to represent variations and relationships of light and color. They were interested in capturing the essence of their subjects and didn’t attempt to fill in all the details. We, however, are interested in both an initial impression and the details. So, again, completing the survey is just the start. Other blogs that I will post over time will dive into the many other related behaviors, or habits, of the wise consumer also drawn from our research. These, too, will be organized along the same six dimensions included in our scale. And, you’ll be able to focus first on the ones that are most important to you, based on your scores from completing the survey yourself.

Next: The Consumer Wisdom Scale – a quick, personal snapshot

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