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Why We Really Shop

The emotions driving our purchases are at least as important as the items we buy

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We think of shopping in terms of what we buy. But the reason we spend money goes beyond just acquiring things. Shopping, like almost everything we do, is the pursuit of pleasure. It is part of our daily search for happiness.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman thinks there is a problem with the word happiness. He believes that the word really has two meanings relative to our well-being, each describing a different source of happiness.

One is momentary pleasure—for example, the happiness someone might experience every time they wear a designer outfit or drive a new car. The other is life satisfaction. If someone has had the goal for a long time to always be on the cutting edge of technology, owning an iPhone 6 or Google Glass will bring satisfaction-driven happiness.

Researchers at two U.S. universities conducted studies about the happiness associated with consumer products.1 That research framed happiness in terms of "wanting what you have" versus "having what you want." The findings support Kahneman’s belief in these two dimensions:

  • Pleasure from “wanting what you have” implies that it is derived from use, creating happiness in the moment. Happiness results from experiencing what they bought. People who want what they have more than others do tend to be happier.
  • “Having what you want” implies that a goal preceded the acquisition. Happiness results from the satisfaction derived from accomplishing the goal. People who have more of what they want than others do also tend to be happier.

Thus, happiness does not come specifically from the objects we buy. It is an emotion associated with our motivations for making those purchases.

Think about all the possible motivations you could have for purchasing a car. These motivations exist on multiple levels and contexts. Take, for example, the experience of driving a car with the latest design and engineering features; social comparison—the statement a new car makes about your status; self-identity—the implications it has regarding financial and career success; your ideal self—the contribution it makes to your self perception; and self-actualization—the fact that it is a "better" car than any that your parents had.

For every individual, one or several motivations will likely have greater importance than others. Positive emotions result from the degree to which the purchase satisfies these primary motives and fulfills your expectations.

The same is true of every product category. Studies we have done have shown the importance of a personality match between consumers and snack-brand imagery; the underlying need for control over life among aging consumers, who take over-the-counter medications; the power that personalized treatment and recognition has in perceptions of banks and other financial institutions; and many other motivations which, when satisfied, evoke positive emotions among consumers.

Yet, in spite of overwhelming evidence that consumer behavior is driven toward positive emotions evoked by satisfying motivations, marketers continue to focus advertising and promotion on their products’ features and attributes. They would be more successful if they shifted their perspective and looked at their products through the mind, and emotions, of the consumer.


1Is Happiness Having What You Want, Wanting What You Have, or Both?, Jeff T. Larsen and Amie R. McKibban, Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 4, 2008

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