How Retail Therapy Works: Spending Money for Social Acceptance

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It was a pattern that Nicole Mead had seen over and over. Her friends would break up with their romantic partners and then go on a shopping spree to compensate: break up and buy, break up and buy, break up and buy. As a marketing and psychology researcher, it was a pattern that fascinated her.

So when it came time for the then-Ph.D. candidate Mead to work on her research project, she knew what she wanted to investigate: how social exclusion — and not necessarily just the romantic kind — impacts spending. Anecdotal evidence had already suggested that retail was the new rebound, but Mead wanted to know how far people would go to mend their bruised ego or broken heart.

“I wanted to inform consumers, so they can take charge of their consumption and spending,” says Mead, the study’s lead author who is now a post-doctorate fellow at the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research. “They may be making financially unwise decisions to be accepted by other people.”

The results are in. In the four experiments conducted for the study to be published in the February 2011 edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Research, Mead witnessed a lot of foolish spending and sacrificing of personal well-being. She documented how participants who felt rejected tended to overspend or buy items associated with belonging, take illegal drugs in public and even order food they previously admitted they found repulsive.

Mead collaborated with researchers Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, Tyler Stillman of Southern Utah University, Catherine Rawn of the University of British Columbia and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota for the study.

In one particularly interesting experiment, participants were asked to complete a bogus personality exam, based on which some were given feedback to make them feel socially accepted, and others excluded. It was pretty harsh:

You may have friends and relationships now, but by your mid-20s most of these will have drifted away. You may even marry or have several marriages, but these are likely to be short-lived and not continue into your 30s. Your relationships won’t last, and when you’re past the age where people are constantly forming new relationships, the odds are you’ll end up being alone more and more.

After this conditioning exercise, respondents were asked to take part in another supposedly unrelated food experiment to be done in pairs. The participants divulged their food preferences in a confidential questionnaire, then were surreptitiously informed that their assigned Chinese tasting partner’s favorite dish was chicken feet. When it came time to order off a menu, those who felt socially rejected tended to order the chicken feet they had already admitted to detesting in the questionnaire — presumably in the hope of forming a friendship with their tasting partner.

“This effect is definitely strategic,” Mead says. “People on some level are doing a cost-benefit analysis. If there’s no opportunity to gain a connection, then the effect isn’t there.” Amy Dalton, a marketing professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, concurs: “For consumers who don’t eat chicken feet, this is clearly a way for them to fit in, not to indulge themselves!”

Spending or sacrificing to seek social acceptance doesn’t have to be wasteful or personally harmful, however. In previous research, Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has found that spending on others makes people happier than spending on themselves. She says socially excluded consumers can learn to spend “in positive ways that foster social relationships.”

Mead couldn’t agree more. “Instead of going shopping after a break-up, maybe call up a friend and sign up for a cooking course,” she says. “Use your money for something that will help connect you in a very experiential way rather than in a materialistic way.”