Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

As Seen On TV: Or, How I Ended Up With the Slap Chop

People talk about the things that make them look good--what's the problem?

Me: How tall are you?

Friend: Do you mean in person or online?

Yelping
Yelp may help reduce self-enhancement
We all know that people tend to, well, present themselves in the best possible light online. When we accentuate the positive (and ignore the negative) in ourselves, it’s called self-enhancement, and there are plenty of studies (and lifetimes of personal experience) that suggest that we all do it and probably have since the dawn of time. An hour on Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild will also convince you that human beings didn’t invent self-enhancement. However, we do have uniquely sophisticated technology for self-enhancement — speech. Not surprisingly, then, when researchers examine what people talk about, they find a “self-enhancement bias” — people tend to talk about the things that make them look good. 

People self-enhance in two primary ways. The first way we self-enhance is to talk up the good things we are and have done while leaving out the bad. We bias the information our friends hear about us toward the positive. The other way we self-enhance is to talk up the negatives associated with other people. We are all much more likely to tell the story about the time our friend cut a guy off in traffic than about the time we did.

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As seen on TV
One of the things we love to talk about is what we have bought. One of the primary reasons we like talking about what we bought is that doing so is a self-enhancement, status producing activity. And as the popularity of consumer ratings sites like Yelp demonstrate, people value and trust what their peers have to say about their consumer experiences. This led researchers Matteo De Angelis and colleagues to wonder if all this self-enhancement might result in consumers receiving a skewed view of the world from their friends and fellow consumers. 

To find out, Matteo De Angelis and colleagues conducted a series of experiments. What the researchers found was that when people felt a need self-enhance they did so by telling positive stories about themselves and negative stories about others.

So, I have a confession. I hate chopping vegetables. After I saw the Slap Chop on TV, I bought one. I got it home, pulled it out of the box, grabbed an onion and started in slapping. But of chopping there was none! It chopped precisely nothing before it disintegrated into shards of cheap plastic and twisted metal, heaving large chunks of onion onto the floor. There. I said it. I’ve been holding that one back. Those ads ran for a long time. I know lots of other people must have bought them, including some of my friends. But I don’t recall anyone mentioning it. I suspect that others had a bad veggie chopping experience but didn’t want to admit they’d been scammed by the ShamWow guy, too.

And that’s the point. We tend to model our behavior after people we know, and this extends to the realm of consumer decision-making. We trust our peers’ (even if they are just Yelp peers) recommendations, and tend to spend money on the same things our friends do. However, it seems that we get only a skewed view of other consumers’ experience. We are probably not hearing about the fails or even the so-so’s at the rate they occur in real life. According to this research, this bias may be resulting in unnecessarily poor consumer decisions.

To better understand the benefits of specific consumer choices, we continue to investigate the relationships between consumer preferences, psychological needs, happiness, and values at our website. At BeyondThePurchase.Org we help people make the connection between their spending habits – how do you spend your money and who do you spend it on – and their happiness. To learn about what might be influencing how you think about and spend your money, Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take a few of our quizzes:

Which spending decisions will make you happiest? Take our Spending Choices and Happiness survey and on your feedback page you will learn how to spend your money to be happier.

How happy are you these days? Take our Happiness and Life Satisfaction quiz and find out your happiness score.

How materialistic are you? Find out by taking the Materialistic Values Scale.

Are you a compulsive buyer? Take the Compulsive Buying Scale and learn about your spending habits.

In what ways do you hope your purchases will transform your life? The Transformation Expectations Questionnaire will tell you about what you expect from your next big purchase.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness.

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

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