Shopping and Self-Esteem

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By Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on May 9, 2011

A new psychological study discovers people like to shop for expensive items when they feel low. And they use credit cards to make such purchases, perhaps to soften the financial blow. Self-Esteem and Shopping

Experts believe people often attempt to improve self-worth by purchasing expensive goods.

However, since paying cash can be psychologically painful, researchers Niro Sivanathan, Ph.D., and doctoral student Nathan Pettit of Cornell University studied whether people might be more likely to use a credit card when feeling badly about one’s self.

The researchers had people work on an ambiguous computer test, and then told half of them that their “spatial reasoning and logic ability was in the 12th percentile,” which is a scientific-sounding way of telling them they’re not very smart.

They told the other half that they were in the 88th percentile, a perfectly fine performance.

The researchers then asked each group how they might pay for “a consumer product that you have been considering purchasing.”

Investigators discovered that people who’d had their ego threatened were substantially more likely to say they were planning on paying on credit.

To extend the depth of the study, Sivanathan and Pettit asked 150 college students to think about buying a pair of jeans.

Half were told to consider a pair of exclusive, high status designer jeans, while the rest were told to think about normal, everyday jeans. The students then went through the same computer test, and were told they had done poorly or well.

The self-esteem threat made people willing to pay almost 30 more for the luxury jeans, and were more than 60 percent more likely to intend to purchase the jeans with a credit card.

These findings suggest consuming luxury goods is a way to restore self-esteem or value. And, people use credit cards despite the interest and fees to offset guilt from making the purchase.

Researchers believe these studies demonstrate how relaxed lending policies—for example, high interest mortgage offers aimed at consumers of low socioeconomic status—can have disastrous consequences.

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