Sense of powerlessness can trigger shopping spree: study

June 29th, 2008 - 5:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, June 29 (IANS) A sense of powerlessness can propel one to spend lavishly on products that somehow assuage one’s feeling of inadequacy, according to a new study. The study addresses the question why many people, though deeply in debt, tend to spend beyond their means, without a thought for the morrow.

Co-authors Derek D. Rucker and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern University found that subjects spent way beyond their means for an item, especially when someone else exercised power over them.

“This increased willingness to pay for status-related objects stems from the belief that obtaining such objects will indeed restore a lost sense of power,” write the authors.

“Spending beyond one’s means . . . is a costly coping strategy for dealing with psychological threats such as feeling powerless.”

In three experiments, the authors asked participants to either describe a situation where they had power over another person or one in which someone had power over them. Then the researchers showed them items and asked how much they would be willing to pay.

After recalling specific instances of feeling powerless, participants were willing to pay more for status items like silk ties and fur coats, but not products like minivans and dryers.

They also agreed to pay more for a framed picture of their university if it was portrayed as rare and exclusive.

“As an analogy, consider two individuals, one a successful millionaire and the other a recently demoted banker,” write the authors. “Both might view a Rolex watch as a clear status symbol.”

However, wearing the watch might not make the millionaire feel any more powerful than he/she normally feels. In contrast, a demoted banker wearing the same watch might make the banker feel significantly more powerful.

In a society with a plummeting savings rate and skyrocketing debt levels, this research has broad implications.

“It suggests that… people use consumer purchases to compensate for psychological states of insecurity,” write the authors.

The article on the study has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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