Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

What Motivates People to Buy Compulsively?

People with material values seem to engage in retail therapy.

About five years ago, right before my wife and I moved to San Francisco, we were walking through a store, and I saw a fondue set. It wasn’t that expensive, and we had been recently going to a few fondue restaurants, and so I thought "we must buy this. We will host a party every Friday and call it Fondue Friday! We will eat cheese and chocolate with friends and family – it will be wonderful!"

So, without any plan or reservation we purchased a rather simple fondue set.

Now, how often have my wife and I hosted a Fondue Friday party? Never. Not once. Not even after I have talked and blogged about this purchase for over the last year.

So what’s the big deal? Everyone buys on impulse every once in a while. Sometimes we just see a deal on a fondue set that we can’t pass up. Is this really so bad? Not really.

However, as psychologist Dennis Rook argues, you should be concerned with impulsive buying when emotions consistently override judgment. That is, if your shopping is accompanied by an irresistible urge to buy, then you should be concerned with your spending habits. Of course, a hallmark that you should be concerned with your buying patterns is if your spending habits lead to disastrous financial consequences.

While psychologists are becoming better at developing surveys people can take to learn if their buying behavior is too impulsive or compulsive (see below), there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to determine what motivates people to buy impulsively. Specifically, our researchers at BeyondThePurchase.Org are trying to identify the values that encourage people to buy compulsively and impulsively.

So, we examined if material values are strongly associated with impulsive and compulsive buying.

By definition, materialists place a greater emphasis on tangible items as indicators of identity and success, often believing that acquiring goods leads to happiness. More specifically, materialists buy products that signal their identity (such as clothes). In our study, we found that material values were strongly related to shopping urgency—which leads to impulsive buying—but, not a lack of planning. That is, people with material values seem to engage in retail therapy more than they just ignore the cost or impracticality of their purchases.

Further, materialists experience a lot of post-purchase guilt and materialistic people are simply more excited by the “promise” of consumption and their buying behavior is "externally-driven." Thus, they are more likely to respond emotionally to the items and marketing messages they encounter.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values.  To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our Compulsive Buying Scale, our Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, and our Beliefs about Well-being. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

Masha Ksendzova, a research assistant in the Personality and Well-being Lab at San Francisco State University, contributed to this entry.

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

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.