Personality profiles of readers vs. non-readers and saving your local bookstore.

I recently attended the Los Angeles Times Book fair, which was held at USC this year.  For anyone who lives close to Los Angeles, I would highly recommend it, as over a 2 day period, I saw Andrew Breitbart, Larry Flynt, Father Greg Boyle, Steve Lopez, and countless other interesting people speak about books they had written.  I met and bought a book from a guy who biked from Alaska to Chile…on a tandem bike!

One thing that always interests me is attending panels on the book industry, and there happened to be a panel that included representatives from three of the best independent bookstores in the country, Powell’s Books, Vroman’s Books (that now owns Book Soup too), and City Lights.  The panelists talked about the challenges of selling books in an age of Amazon and e-readers, with many of them echoing themes about how independent bookstores have become a “3rd place” where people can browse and discover books, which may or may not lead to a sale of a physical book.

One thing I study is the tendency to make experiential vs. material purchases and I therefore asked a question, which relates both to my research and my own experience in bookstores, which is that what I really value about physical bookstores is the experience of browsing the shelves, not the ability to buy physical books.  I normally walk out with a number of books, but I’m not necessarily there to buy something…rather, I’m there to experience the world of ideas.  Buying a book there just seems like the polite thing to do.  It occurred to me that other readers might be like me and appreciate the experience of browsing books more than owning any physical book.  Indeed, this market research that I later found agrees, in that they found that younger buyers appreciate the brick-and-mortars shopping experience of physical bookstores, even as there is significant leakage whereby they actually purchase books online.

Both because I was curious and because I’d like to help booksellers, I decided to look at our yourmorals data to see if I could say anything about the personality profile of readers vs. non-readers.  This is certainly a unique sample  - over educated and likely non-fiction readers as we get a lot of people who find our website via science articles – but while the mean levels of reading are meaningless, the relationships between variables in our sample often generalize (see this article).  We actually have a question, “How many hours a week do you spend reading?”, that I used to characterize people as readers and non-readers and my first thought was that readers would be more experiential, as opposed to material purchasers.  However, in the 175 people who had taken our experiential vs. material purchasing measure, the correlation was insignificant (and negative), meaning that my hypothesis was likely wrong.  Readers are not experiential rather than material purchasers, at least in our data set.

I then thought I’d explore more and below is a graph of the Big 5 personality traits of readers vs. non-readers.

The trend for openness to experience is clear and robust.  It replicates within political groups and within each gender.  The effect size is about a half of a standard deviation.  People who are “original”, “curious”, “deep thinkers” read more.  This is perhaps different than stimulation seeking (readers also do not score higher on valuing stimulation on the Schwartz values scale) or experiential purchasing, in that readers aren’t necessarily seeking novelty or thrills (otherwise they might experience the world more directly, rather than reading about it).  Here are some related differences between light (under 10 hours per week – in blue) and heavy (more than 20 hours per week reading – in green) readers.

Heavy readers are more comfortable with uncertainty (low need for closure), enjoy deliberate cognitive thinking (high need for cognition), and tend to try to understand how the world works in a systematic way (higher systemetizer scores).

These are hardly earth shattering findings, but sometimes its useful to emphasize what you already know and doing this analysis perhaps crystallizes the question I proposed to the panel.  I asked if there was a way for those of us who enjoy the experience of bookstores to pay for the experience, perhaps through memberships, rather than the material goods, which are often more efficiently bought elsewhere.  However, readers are not necessarily more experiential purchasers, as I had originally thought and it isn’t just an experience that should be offered.  Rather heavy readers (at least in this sample) are people who enjoy engaging in the world of ideas.  Buying books is one way for readers to engage in effortful thinking and gain understanding of the world, but perhaps independent bookstores can think of other ways to charge people for better access to the world of ideas, leading to more congruence between what readers want and what only brick and mortar stores can provide.  The LA Times book fair, though free, is perhaps a good model, where people line up for access to intellectually stimulating panels with live discussions.  I am not in the book industry, but I’m hopeful that the idea that booksellers are selling ideas, rather than books, will be generative, in terms of thinking up ideas for supporting the livelihoods of independent booksellers.  Charging for panels, better access to authors, or providing a marketplace of ideas that are specific to a very local community are thoughts that come to mind, but I’m sure there are many other ways.  Personally, I’d happily give more money to my local bookstore, if they could somehow leverage their physical space in a way that would help me think of and discuss new interesting ideas in new interesting ways.

- Ravi Iyer



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