Publication Detail

Interpersonal Influence within Car Buyers' Social Networks: Observing Consumer Assessment of Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and the Spread of Pro-Societal Values


Research Report

Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS), Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center, Alumni Theses and Dissertations

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Suggested Citation:
Axsen, Jonn (2010) Interpersonal Influence within Car Buyers' Social Networks: Observing Consumer Assessment of Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and the Spread of Pro-Societal Values. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-10-15

Consumer purchase behavior is central to the successful deployment of alternative-fuel passenger vehicles, which includes non-rational processes such as social influence. This dissertation explores the role of social influence in vehicle purchase behavior via observations of car buyers’ assessments of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs)—vehicles that can use gasoline and grid electricity. Five theoretical perspectives on social influence are used to analyze these behaviors: contagion, conformity, dissemination, translation, and reflexivity. I designed and implemented a multi-method, exploratory research design to engage households in semi-directed interviews, online surveys, a social-network mapping exercise and a diary of social episodes. Participants included 10 “primary” households (18 individuals) that drive a PHEV for a multi-week trial in the Sacramento, California region, and 22 “secondary” individuals that primary households recruit from their social networks. The analysis explores three questions: i) whether or not social interactions influence vehicle assessment and purchase behavior, ii) how such social influence occurs, and ii) under what conditions pro-societal motivations might develop. First, I find that social interactions do have substantial influence over the majority of participants’ assessments. Second, contagion and similar theoretical perspectives over-simplify processes of social influence, while translation and reflexivity better provide the language and theoretical depth required to integrate the observed perceptions and social processes with concepts of self-identity. Third, car buyers that are typically motivated by the private benefits of vehicles may be amenable to developing new, pro-societal interpretations of PHEVs when they: i) are in a transitional (liminal) state in their lifestyle practices, ii) can quickly form a basic functional understanding of PHEV technology, and iii) find supportive pro-societal values within their social network.

A theoretical contribution of this dissertation is an integration of theoretical perspectives with my empirical observations to create a framework representing the role of social influence in purchase of pro-societal goods—what I call the Reflexive Layers of Influence (RLI) framework. Overall, this dissertation demonstrates that social influence is important, as is the development and use of behaviorally realistic theoretical frameworks to advance transportation and energy policies that rely on the widespread adoption of new technologies.

Ph.D. Dissertation