Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

What Drives Us to Get Our Bling On?

Individuals with lowered status desire high status items.

According to the urban dictionary, the term bling came in to the modern vocabulary in the 1990s, possibly imported from Jamaica by American rappers, and meant to indicate either the imagined play of light bouncing off shiny jewelry, or the sound of the metally bits of jewelry “blinging” against itself.

Whatever the specifics of its origin, it turns out to be no accident that a term meant to describe and draw attention to shiny, expensive possessions grew out of low-income, inner-city environments. As a new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology demonstrated, the ostentatious display of expensive personal adornments is most likely to be practiced by people who perceive themselves to be of low status.

Before describing the experiments, however, it is important to recognize that even here in the United States, where we think of ourselves as a classless society, we are obsessed with status, and our status is often determined as much by our racial/ ethnic background, where we live, and what we do for a living as by the content of our characters. Wherever two or more are gathered, people tend to sort themselves into status hierarchies immediately. Close observers can read these hierarchies easily. Higher status people use language differently (e.g., use the royal “we”), sit differently (laid back with open postures), and occupy more of the conversation than lower status individuals. Moreover, in conversation, lower status individuals very quickly begin to mimmic both the body language and speaking style of the higher status individuals.

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All that to say, as we have discussed before, that status is very important to us. In fact—and this is the main point—as with money, the less of it you have, the more important it seems to be.

The idea behind the experiments was to manipulate how much status participants felt, then ask them to choose from among a set of consumer items. If status affects what people value, low status individuals will desire higher status items.

The set up. Psychology experiments can be complicated to execute, and these experiments were no exception. To begin, in order to know whether people perceived various groups (for example, whites v. blacks, doctors v. janitors) as higher or lower status, Philip Mazzocco of Ohio State University and his colleagues recruited participants to rate groups in terms of status. In addition, they invited another group of participants to rate a set of consumer items for how much status such items would supply their owner. Finally, and with a completely new set of participants, Mazzocco and colleagues conducted the experiment proper.

The experiments. In the experiments, Mazzocco and colleagues first manipulated their participants’ sense of status. Now, having read the above about status, it may seem that manipulating whether someone feels like they are of high or low status might be difficult. In fact, it is as simple as asking people to read stories and think about what life is like for someone else. That is just what Mazzocco and colleagues did. Across several experiments and variations on the theme, they asked participants to read, write and think about what it is like to be a member of a different status group. Some participants considered the experience of being black, others pondered being a janitor, a neurosurgeon, and so on. After the experience of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, participants were asked to rate their current feeling of status. Finally, participants in the experiment were asked to rate how much they desired each of the consumer items from the list mentioned above.

The result. As the experimenters had suspected, individuals who had their status experimentally lowered rated high status consumer items as more desirable. And, the lower a person felt on the totem poll, the more they desired high status products.

Conclusions. So, what we know is that for people who don’t have status, acquiring it is a key motivation. Thus the people who can least afford it tend to feel the greatest need to acquire possessions that signal high status. In the deep past, many modern options simply would not have been available. In the days before easy credit, the only real way to acquire status would have been through accomplishing something that was valued by our social group—deeds of physical prowess, intellectual invention, or social success would have been the only means of achieving higher status. However, after civilization and the growth of larger, more specialized societies, the acquisition of property became an option. And with that, the acquisition of someone else’s property (ie, theft) would also have become an option.

Now, we have an easier, less dangerous option for the instant acquisition of status—consumer credit and debt. It is probably not necessary to go into detail about the dangers of consumer credit and debt. Suffice to say that in a world in which it is possible to compare ourselves to higher status others 24/7, 365 days a year, it is likely very financially unhealthy to do so.

Next time you are feeling the itch to bling up, it might be wise to stop and ponder from whence that itch comes and to let the feeling sit for a while before acting. It might be cheaper to call someone you know values you to get a bit of an ego boost than to go shopping and acquire debt.

Better yet, doing something you’re good at might give you that needed boost and dispel the need to acquire status through shopping.

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 Materialistic Values 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.

The article referenced above is: Mazzocco, P.J., Rucker, D.D., Galinsky, A.D., & Anderson, E.T. (2012). Direct and vicarious conspicuous consumption: Identification with low-status groups increases the desire for high-status goods, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22 (4),  520-528.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham.

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

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