Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Of sheep and peacocks: How advertisers get in your wallet

How do advertisers persuade consumers to part with their money?

Money and happiness
Among the many tricks advertisers employ to persuade consumers to part with their money, two are particularly common. You'll recognize them.

Blending In and Standing Out

In one technique, known by psychologists as "social proof," advertisers make claims such as: "We are the number one dealer in the area!" This technique is intended to appeal to the universal human desire to fit in with others. The other common technique makes the opposite appeal, but is equally familiar. In the "scarcity" appeal, advertisers appeal to our desire to be unique, to distinguish ourselves from the crowd and to express our individuality. Such claims often suggest that "this is a once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity.

As it turns out, we are all persuaded by both types of messages - but for different reasons and at different times. Recently, a team of researchers led by Vladas Griskevicius from the University of Minnesota asked whether the content surrounding these advertising messages might help determine which was more persuasive. For instance, when people feel threatened, they naturally become more inclined to blend in with their friends and loved ones. When people are feeling romantically inclined, they are more inclined to seek opportunities to be unique and stand apart from the crowd. This makes sense: like sheep gathering in a herd to seek safety from predators, in our evolutionary past people inclined to seek out the company and comfort of others in times of distress would have been more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Conversely, in order to attract a mate, it is necessary to stand out from the crowd somehow - think of the peacock displaying its tail to attract peahens. In the mating frame of mind, people are no longer interested in fitting in - they want to be noticed. So, these two strong but opposing motivations - to fit in or to stand out - occur to everyone.

See All Stories In

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

What did the researchers find?

In the experiment, people were first shown a clip from a scary movie and then shown either a social proof ad or a scarcity ad. Another group of participants were shown a romantic movie, then shown the same two ads. What the researchers found was that people who were shown the scary movie were persuaded by the social proof (everybody's doing it) ads, but were not persuaded by the scarcity ads. In fact, when feeling threatened, people were inclined to dislike offers that were couched in terms of scarcity or uniqueness. As expected, when people watched a romantic movie, just the opposite pattern emerged. People watching a romantic movie were more persuaded by the opportunity to be (or buy) something unique, but were inclined to dislike messages using the social proof approach. 

So, next time you are watching a scary or romantic show, try paying attention to how you feel about the advertising messages you are presented with during and after the show. Notice whether you are particularly drawn to the social proof or the scarcity messages. Being aware of why you are feeling persuaded may help you resist that "once in a lifetime" or "everybody's doing it" urge to splurge.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we help people understand the relationship between money and happiness. To learn about what might be influencing how you spend your money, register with Beyond The Purchase and then take a few of our happiness quizzesconsumer psychology surveys, and personality tests. After each quiz, we will provide you with personalized feedback and graphics as well as practical happiness tips so you can will learn about how you can make little changes to be happier. 

Can money buy happiness? Take our experiential buying survey and on your feedback page you will learn how to spend your money to be happier.

How do you find happiness? Take the satisfaction with life scale and find out your happiness score.

Is shopping an addiction? Take the compulsive buying scale and learn about your spending habits. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. Responses to these surveys will also help researchers further understand the connection between money and happiness.

The research discussed above was based upon research published as: Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N., Mortensen, C. R., Sundie, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., & Kenrick, D. T. (2011). Fear and Loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, Emotion, and Persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 384-395.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

more...

Subscribe to Can't Buy Happiness?

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.