Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

I Will Have What She's Having: Feeling Left Out and Buying

Being snubbed can cause people to do and buy almost anything.

You’ve been asked to participate in a series of marketing studies. The experimenter tells you that you are going to record a short video, which is going to be shown to another participant. Likewise, you’ll see their video. After these video introductions, you’ll be taking part in a marketing study together. 

Social Exclusion
Then, after you send off your video to be seen by the other participant, the experimenter returns to the room and tells you that, sorry, when the other participant saw your video, they decided not to participate after all.

Ouch! 

Well, the experiment isn't really over. You are led to another room where you are asked to review a number of consumer items the bookstore is considering stocking. All you need to do is mark which ones you would like to buy, and that will help the university bookstore with their purchasing. Among the items are a notepad, a notebook, a package of pens, a magazine, some Oreos, shower, gel, and a package of wrist bands with your university logo and several other items. So, what would you buy?

The researchers (Nicole Mead, Roy Baumeister, Tyler Stillman, Catherine Rawn, and Kathleen Vohs) hypothesized that when you are feeling left out -- socially excluded -- you are far more likely to buy the wrist bands with your university logo than you normally would. Why? Because the university logo wrist bands will make you feel like you belong to something, and after being snubbed, your top priority is to feel like you belong again. And the researchers were correct (read their study here); participants who thought they had been dumped for personal reasons were more likely to want to buy items that demonstrated their belonging to the group. In a different experiment, when snubbed participants were paired with someone else who reported to love chicken feet, snubbed participants were significantly more likely to order chicken feet.

Chicken Feet.
Why is this? In our evolutionary past, being snubbed by others might have meant the difference between life and death. In our evolutionary past, being voted off the island would have been a death sentence. We are evolved to make sure that doesn’t happen, even if it means eating chicken feet.

Why do these results matter? Well, for one, the researchers also ran a version of the experimenter in which participants were presented with the (fictitious) opportunity to use an illicit drug instead of eating chicken feet. Snubbed participants were far more likely to choose cocaine, when they thought that their new partner would approve. Being snubbed can cause people to do and buy almost anything in order to feel better about their social prospects.

How can you find out how you might have reacted? Beyond The Purchase is a website dedicated to understanding the psychology behind spending decisions and the relationship between money and happiness. We study how factors like your values and personality interact with spending decisions to affect your happiness. At Beyond The Purchase you can take quizzes that help you understand what motivates your spending decisions, and you’ll get personalized feedback and tips. For example:

How do you score on the five fundamental dimensions of personality? Take our Big Five personality test and find out.

How do you feel about your past, present, and future? Take the Time Attitudes Survey and learn about your relation with time.

How happy are your Facebook updates? We can analyze your last 25 Facebook status updates and determine how happy you have been.

How happy is your subconscious? Take our Happiness IAT and find out.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

The article referenced above is called, “Social Exclusion Causes People to Use Money Strategically in the Service of Affiliation,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research in February, 2011.

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

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