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Consumer Behavior

Why Do We Buy Things We Don’t Need?

Consumerism has deep psychological underpinnings.

Key points

  • Much of what we buy is not truly necessary.
  • Most of us devote much time and effort to be able to afford to buy unnecessary things.
  • Consumer culture may offer the means to establish and express our identity and feel a sense of power.

As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs famously showed, we don’t need a whole lot to physically survive in our modern age. Food, shelter, and clothing are the essentials, and, fortunately, most Americans can scrape together enough money to pay for those things. (Healthcare is sadly a whole different story.) There are lots of other things that are not strictly essential but are certainly good to have to operate in society. Soap, for example, is highly recommended.

Beyond that, however, much of what we buy is not necessary to survive. We don’t need $5 coffees, ten or twenty pairs of shoes, a television, or a Tesla. But almost all of us are literally invested in non-essential consumption, begging the question of why that is so. One might even say that buying things that we don’t need is the basis for our way of life, grounded in consumer capitalism. We work to earn money to spend on stuff and experiences that we mostly want rather than need, an endless economic cycle that generally determines how we use the limited time that we have on Earth.

Theories abound about why we like to buy things we don’t need even though doing so exacts a heavy price on our lives. The first explanation is that we are, perhaps more than anything else, consumers, making it sensible that we look to the marketplace to find fulfillment and happiness. Having more stuff costs more money, as does having more expensive stuff, creating the sense that there is always something else and/or better to buy. While certainly good for the economy and temporarily rewarding, there is abundant evidence to suggest that this consumption-based model of life is not the best way to realize enduring satisfaction and contentment and our full potential as human beings.

Social status clearly has much to do with buying unnecessary things. How one is perceived by others relies heavily on one’s “brand portfolio,” i.e., the set of market-based symbols that each of us has gathered and are readily available for purchase. Unnecessary things convey far greater status than necessary things, of course, making it understandable why those seeking social recognition are attracted to luxury goods and to experiences that offer bragging rights.

Social critics have pointed out the costs of our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyle. In her book, The Overspent American, for example, Juliet B. Schor attacked what she termed “competitive consumerism,” arguing that the American way of life was excessively materialistic. “We spend more than we realize, hold more debt than we admit to, and ignore many of the moral conflicts surrounding our acquisitions,” Schor wrote in the 1998 book, all of this in the endless pursuit of status symbols and social climbing. Schor, a Harvard economist whose previous book was The Overworked American, suggested we were the worse off for all this overspending, ultimately leaving us dissatisfied.

Still, there must be considerable value to be found in buying non-essentials or people just wouldn’t do it. Consumer culture is a prime way we carve out our individual identities and it is this that offers clues to the psychological foundation of our spending habits. The material and experiential worlds represent an excellent opportunity to tell the world (and ourselves) who we are and who we’re not, with each product or service loaded with semiotic meanings. Clues to anyone’s personality reside in the kind of house one lives in, the car one drives, the clothes one wears, and even the food one eats, making the establishing and expressing of personal identity a key component of superfluous consumption.

Finally, there is power to be had in the ownership of the unnecessary. Much of what takes place in this world is beyond our control, but the possession of a particular thing, especially if we don’t really need it, offers a feeling of being in charge of our own lives. We become the master of a tiny part of the universe whenever we exchange money for an item, something that provides a sense of assurance and stability in our time and place where there are many unknowns.

More from Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.
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