For Americans, Mobility Breeds Uniformity

Researchers argue the much-decried homogenization of America is, in part, a product of our residential mobility.
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We Americans take fierce pride in our individualism, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our subdivisions and shopping malls. From Boston to Burbank, we buy the same nationally advertised products at the same chain stores and restaurants, happily embracing conformity as we proudly proclaim our uniqueness.

Why does our self-image fail to reflect reality? Researchers led by University of Virginia psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Felicity Miao offer an intriguing answer. They argue our willingness to move far from home leads us to crave the comfort of sameness in our immediate surroundings.

“Residential mobility, the very factor that allows Americans to pursue their individual desires, ironically facilitates the uniformity of American landscapes,” the researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “This is because a move to a ‘strange land’ evokes the desire for familiar objects, including national chain stores.”

In other words, we’re willing to relocate to an unfamiliar city in the hope of making our fortune, but once there we crave the familiarity of our favorite fast-food joints.

The researchers describe five studies that provide evidence confirming their thesis. They analyzed the geographical distribution of national chain stores and found they are more prevalent in states with high levels of residential mobility. (Mobility was measured by 2000 census data noting the percent of people who lived in a different residence five years earlier).

“If two states are roughly equal in terms of total population and wealth, it is in a residentially mobile state where national chain stores will succeed,” they write.

A pair of studies compared participants’ history of residential moves with their preference for national chain stores. One hundred and twenty-eight University of Virginia undergraduates were asked whether they would patronize a chain store or a mom-and-pop operation on an imaginary trip to California. They were asked to make a series of specific choices, including whether they’d prefer pizza from Domino’s or a local restaurant.

“Individuals who had moved frequently showed a greater degree of preference for familiar stores (national chain stores) over unfamiliar stores than individuals who had not moved frequently,” the researchers report.

A follow-up study found that a “personal history of residential moves was the only significant predictor of preference for national chain stores among 12 to 16 variables.”

The researchers concede there are other reasons for the dominance of chain stores, noting their sheer size allows them to be “more efficient and competitive than their local counterparts.” (In other words, the merchandise is cheaper.) But they argue the “amplified familiarity-seeking” of geographically displaced individuals adds to the stores’ already-considerable appeal.

In this context, it’s worth noting a 2009 census bureau study that found the number of people who changed residences has plummeted since the downturn began in 2008. With so few jobs available, people are less motivated to move to a different city.

If this trend persists, Staples and Starbucks will lose some of their appeal as people stay put. But the idea of picking up stakes to find a better life is an ingrained element of American culture, one unlikely to recede forever.

So chain stores offer something more than low prices. They also offer the comfort of the familiar, which is particularly attractive if you’ve moved to an unfamiliar city. When you’re far from home, there’s no place like Home Depot.

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