Across all cultures, the mobile phone is often seen as an extension of oneself. Customization options, from exterior cases and hanging charms, to ringtones and wallpapers, have turned cellphones into “personal miniature representations of self-expression,” says Sundar. How and why you customize can say a lot about who you are, both as an individual and as a representative of your culture.
“In our study, we find that people who are more other-directed, that is those who care about how others see them, are more likely to customize their phone for aesthetic reasons,” explains Sundar. “They see the customized phone as reflecting themselves, which in turn signals their attachment to their phone.” Through their research, Sundar and Lee found this to be most prevalent in Eastern cultures. “Particularly in Korea,” says Sundar, “the market for phone accessories is larger than that for the phone itself. It is a common sight to see entire shops devoted to such accessories in Korea, which I found quite striking when I went there as a visiting professor.”
The study found this level of customization to be less common in Western cultures, and the US in particular. “Our data suggests that it has to do with the value Americans place on self-expression,” explains Sundar. “Since Americans find other avenues for expressing themselves, including verbally, they do not feel the same need as Koreans to express themselves symbolically via phone accessories.”
Sundar and his collaborators at Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory have conducted extensive research on the psychology of customization, most recently the customization of personal information environments or portals, web pages, desktop screens, smartphones and virtual avatars. “But, mobile devices present us with an opportunity to customize outward appearance of the technology as well, thus making the customization visible to others,” explains Sundar. “Customization then becomes a vehicle for conveying one's identity and personality. It's not just about functionality any more, but about aesthetics, style and showing oneself off to others.”
Sundar says that this finding is something that mobile phone companies as well as phone accessory manufacturers should be taking note of. “Since our data shows that customizing your phone for aesthetic reasons is strongly related to your attachment to that phone, this is of obvious importance to phone manufacturers and indeed all device designers. Customizability is related to product loyalty.”
Source: Media Psychology Jan 2015
Full bibliographic information: Media, The Self, and Social Relationships, “Cosmetic Customization of Mobile Phones: Cultural Antecedents, Psychological Correlates”, Seoyeon Lee of LG Electronics & S. Shyam Sundar of Penn State University (Vol. 18, Issue 1, 2015)