Social Isolation Leads to Risky Financial Decisions

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If you feel like you can’t make friends, you might try to buy them, new research suggests, even if it takes some considerable financial risk.

The study adds to a host of other work that points out the dangers of social isolation— from overeating to drug abuse. The findings suggest that excluded people seek money in risky ways in a desperate attempt to rebuild social connections — and that has worrying implications in a world where many countries show a decline in the number and quality of people’s close relationships in recent decades.

“Modern societies are complex social systems [in which] people obtain what they want via two primary means, popularity and money,” says the study’s lead author Rod Duclos, an assistant professor of marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Duclos presented the new data along with findings from a recently published study on the subject at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Hawaii this week.

When people don’t feel connected to their social network, they often try to buy satisfaction or fulfillment, the research suggests. Prior studies have found that excluding people drives them to buy products that symbolize their connection to others, such as merchandise with sports team logos or brand name products that imply a certain status, and popularity, in society.

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The new research included multiple experiments, some in the lab and one in the shopping malls, parks and subway stations in Hong Kong. College students were recruited to write about personal experiences, and those who were assigned to describe situations in which they felt socially isolated were more likely to gamble for a potentially larger monetary prize than those who wrote about circumstances in which they were socially included or who wrote about neutral topics like their diet. The latter groups were more likely to accept a definitive, but smaller payoff.

And the more rejected people felt, the more likely they were to see money as a way to solve their problems. Another experiment, this one including 35 students, looked directly at this question.  Those who’d considered an experience of social rejection were again far more likely to pick a more risky lottery— in this case, one where they could even potentially lose money.  Rejection increased their endorsement of beliefs linking money to a better life and these beliefs entirely accounted for the riskier gambling choice.

When people feel excluded, Duclos says, “Money gains importance by becoming our primary means to maintain control. [It] enables people to manipulate the social system to give them what they want, regardless of whether they are liked by others.”

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Another experiment, which involved randomly approaching people in public places in Hong Kong, found that those who said they felt more rejected in general tended to report more betting on lotteries and at the horse track or casino, and riskier investment strategies than those who reported feeling more socially connected.  The research was published in a recent issue of the  Journal of Consumer Research.

Why does social isolation prompt people to become such poor financial managers? In some new data  presented at the meeting, Duclos says that people who were rejected may be so focused on gaining social acceptance— and the need for money to achieve that acceptance—that they tend to concentrate on the possible gains, no matter how risky or unlikely, rather than calculate more realistic odds. “Because of this attentional bias, they go on to favor the riskier but potentially more lucrative financial plan,” he says.

The findings may have some practical implications, since they lend support to the idea that people shouldn’t make important investment decisions or financial plans when they feel rejected or alone. “In light of these findings, consumers might want to refrain from making important financial decisions following a breakup or a falling out with friends, as they might commit themselves to riskier outcomes than they would normally,” says Duclos. “Alternatively, consulting a friend or any sort of social support would also counteract feelings of loneliness.” Social support, it seems, may not just be good for emotional and physical health — it may be good for the wallet as well.