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The High Cost of Vanity

Those designer logos and how they appeal to our vanity.

Are you lured by the aura of brand names, especially those high-end designer logos? Researchers are now finding that you’re especially likely to overspend if you’re, as the song says “so vain.” University of Southern Illinois consumer scientists Jane Workman and Seung-Hee Lee believe that vanity is one of the chief driving forces that lead shoppers to plunk down more of their hard-earned cash on high-end brand name items. It's not only that the more you care about impressing other people with your appearance, the more likely you will to overspend. In fact, the more focused you are on your own thoughts, feelings, and impressions you make on others, the more you'll seek outwardly-recognizable status symbols. Vain people care not just about looking good to others, but more importantly, about looking good to themselves.

A well-known principle of social psychology, social comparison theory proposes that we are constantly evaluating ourselves in relation to other people. In downward social comparison, you make yourself feel better by viewing yourself as more fortunate than others. The converse process also applies. In upward social comparison, you feel far worse about yourself if you see (or believe) that someone is outdoing you. Downward social comparison is a great coping process because it allows you to view a bad situation by looking at others who are worse off than you (poorer, less attractive, more stressed) and concluding that things aren’t really so bad. Upward social comparison can cause you to berate yourself unnecessarily because you feel that you’re being outdone by your friends, relatives, co-workers, or perhaps your Facebook friends.

Workman and Lee believed that social comparison is involved in the processes that lead us to empty our wallets for consumer goods that carry with them recognizable, expensive, labels. From sunglasses to sneakers, little symbols signify their price and, for many of us, our value as human beings. The smart shopper knows how to find these status symbols at bargain prices. The very savviest may still prefer to shell out the full amounts in order to be the first among their social circle to be wearing the latest models. However, as you'll see shortly, people often dress to impress themselves, propping their self-concept up by feeding their need to look attractive and successful.

Your desire to have recognizable brand names, or “brand sensitivity,” means that brand names are important to you in the process of making purchasing decisions. You may be highly brand sensitive, however, without knowing it. Through unconscious conditioning, you’ve come to associate certain brands with certain attributes, a factor that plays heavily into celebrity marketing. When movie stars show up in ads for a particular cosmetic, line of clothing, or even underwear, you’ll be drawn toward those products because you form positive associations with the brand and the person.

Not everyone is equally tempted by Ralph Lauren or Prada seals of approval, no matter who is modeling them. According to Workman and Lee, it should only be the most vain among us who are the most likely to stroll the fashion boutiques. There are 2 basic categories of vanity: physical appearance and the achievement of success. Fashion models and athletes are vain in the sense of wanting to be attractive. People who purchase expensive products are vain in the sense of wanting to look successful. There are two subtypes within each type of vanity: being preoccupied with appearance or success vs. seeing yourself as more attractive or successful than you are.

The kind of social comparison process that Workman and Lee believed to be important in consumer decisions involves the thoughts and feelings you have about how much more attractive or successful you are than others. People high in private self-consciousness tend to be self-reflective and introspective. If you’re high in private self-consciousness, for example, you would agree with the statement “I think about myself a lot.”

Workman and Lee reason that both vanity and private self-consciousness involve egocentrism, or the tendency to regard yourself as the center of the universe. If you’re always thinking about your own thoughts and feelings, it’s natural that you’ll develop a preoccupation with yourself and, hence, an excessive concern with your appearance and accomplishments.

In the Workman and Lee study, undergraduate student participants rated themselves on measures of vanity, brand sensitivity (“When I buy a clothing product, I prefer to buy well-known brands”) and brand consciousness (“Sometimes I am willing to pay more money for clothing because of its brand name”), as well as private self-consciousness.

For the most part, the participants with the most vanity were also most sensitive to and conscious of brand names. The vainest students were also the highest in private self-consciousness, or preoccupation with their thoughts and feelings. Of course, these were young adults, who we might expect to be at the height of their egocentric tendencies. However, the vain young adult often turns into the vain middle-aged person who, with more disposable income, may be even more fixated on the outer trappings of appearance and success. It would be interesting to see how the findings differ among a somewhat older crowd.

Vanity is considered to stem from pride, which is one of the 7 deadly sins. People don’t like to admit that they’re vain. In fact, the vainest among us are probably the least likely to admit it. The fact that the participants in the Workman and Lee study owned up to their own self-preoccupation is impressive, supporting the widespread tendency of advertisers to use brand-name manipulation in the market place.

If your vanity takes the form of being preoccupied with achievement, you’ll constantly seek expensive labels to prove your own worth and success. If it's your physical appearance you focus on, you’ll be lured by fancy clothes because you think they'll make you look better. The physically vain woman won’t want to pull out a drug-store lipstick in front of others to retouch her makeup; she’ll prefer to reach for the shiny gold department store variety costing 3 or 4 times as much. The color may be exactly the same, but it’s the glamour of the tube that matters most to her.

Oddly enough, many of the high-end goods that we wear can’t be seen by anyone else. No one knows whether you’re wearing Hanes or Calvin Klein’s under those designer jeans. It probably doesn’t matter to too many people, including your romantic partners, whether the sheets on your bed come from Target or from Bloomingdale’s. Therefore, when we shell out the extra cash for what goes under our clothes, or over our mattresses, we may be succumbing to the pull that vanity has over our sensibilities.

Extrapolating somewhat from the Workman and Lee study, it’s possible to understand vanity as a variant of the unhealthy form of narcissism. In vulnerable narcissism, people are constantly seeking ways to feel more important, attractive, and successful as a means of compensating for their inner feelings of weakness and inferiority. Equating designer goods with personal value feeds into the worst kind of narcissistic vulnerability.

The take-home message is that it’s worth taking stock of your own motivations before you make your next sizeable purchase of a brand-name item. Who are you trying to please? Do you feel that you need to look better than other people, and that’s why you need that validation of your worth? Is it part of a larger pattern in which you think you’re better-looking than everyone else and “deserve” to treat yourself? It’s possible that the high-priced item is of better quality, and that your investment will prove worth the financial sacrifice. However, by understanding your own motivations, your budget and your self-image can both benefit.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Workman, J. E., & Lee, S. H. (2013). Relationships among consumer vanity, gender, brand sensitivity, brand consciousness and private self‐consciousness. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 37, 206-213. doi: 10.1111/j.1470-6431.2012.01112.x

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