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How Reflecting on Our Possessions Can Curb Impulse Buying

It provides a way of mentally “shopping the closet” and quells desire to buy.

“Wilful waste makes woeful want.” – Mrs. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, 1866.

A consistent theme of this blog is discussing ways to shop, buy, and consume prudently, and derive maximum pleasure from these activities. Unfortunately, most of us have far too many possessions to fully enjoy or use. Yet we keep adding to our store of belongings in ways big and small. Instead of increasing enjoyment, our possessions overwhelm us and our total pleasure is reduced.

Row of Shoes by Duong Tran Quoc Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Row of Shoes by Duong Tran Quoc Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Take the case of shoes. American men own an average of 11 pairs and American women own 13 pairs. Their shoe collection equates to two and a half weeks of income for the average American. Yet, people use only about three pairs regularly and own several shoes they have never worn.

The twentieth-century aphorism, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” seems laughably quaint and naïve in the light of such excessive shopping activity. We hardly use up or wear our any of our belongings, and instead of making do or doing without, we keep buying new ones.

Can we turn this ship around, so to speak? In this post, I want to write about an interesting finding from a research paper that I coauthored with two Rice University doctoral students, Jihye Jung and Nivriti Chowdhri which suggests one promising method. In the research, we studied the usefulness of a visualization we call “reflection” to reduce people's shopping urges. It can be used “just in time” – right when an urge to buy something is experienced.

Reflection is about thinking deeply and remembering in detail how you used any one of your possessions recently. In our research, we’ve found it helps if the reflected-upon possession is something functional, like a kitchen implement, a lawn-mower or a wristwatch. Here’s the instruction from one of our studies which included 165 participants:

“In this exercise, your task is to describe your recent experience with a product. Specifically, we would like you to think of any product that you purchased, currently own, and have used recently.

Step 1: Take a minute and think of a product that you purchased, currently own, and have used recently.

Step 2: In a few sentences, please describe this product in detail.

Step 3: Now we want you to describe how you used the product on the most recent occasion. In the space provided below, explain WHEN, WHERE, HOW, and HOW LONG you used this product. Please describe your experience with the product in as much detail as possible, and please spend at least TWO MINUTES on this task.”

And here are two examples of our participants’ reflections to give you a better sense of the exercise:

Shoe Wardrobe by Jakob Owens Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Shoe Wardrobe by Jakob Owens Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
  • “I have a pair of light Nike running shoes I used this morning. I bought them about a year ago for about $80. The reason I bought them was because my brother has a same pair which I tried on and really liked so I bought my own. I used them this morning to go for a run. I went for a run around the neighborhood for half an hour. I really like these shoes because they're really light and they breathe easy. I use them to go on runs. Sometimes I use them at work since I do a lot of walking and they are so comfortable.” (25-year-old male).
  • “I just purchased a Kindle Fire. It is black. I can read books and access the internet. It opens a world of novelty to me. I read a book in bed and checked the weather this morning before even getting up. I spent about 45 mins. I also downloaded several apps. I was laying down and the ease of Kindle use allowed me to comfortably read without noise to wake up my partner.” (29-year-old female).

The study had two other conditions. One was a control condition in which participants didn’t do anything. In the other condition, they formed a plan to use a possession they hadn’t recently used, which is a common situation many of us face because we have so many things we haven't used recently.

After this experimental manipulation, study participants were given a series of five products. These were a cashmere sweater, a stainless steel watch, a coffee maker, a chair, and a box of Godiva chocolates. For each item, participants indicated how much they were willing to pay (WTP) for it. We calculated a WTP index for each participant, by standardizing each item’s WTP and then adding the values.

Reflection study results/ Graphic by Utpal Dholakia
Source: Reflection study results/ Graphic by Utpal Dholakia

As the figure shows, those who had reflected on using their possession recently had a much lower willingness-to-pay for a basket of products than either the control or the plan conditions. To give you a sense of the actual numbers, the total WTP for the five items of those who reflected was $227, compared to $265 for the control group and $281 for the planning group. In other words, reflection about recently used possessions lowered the person’s willingness-to-pay for new items by about 14% compared to the control condition.

Reflection is like a mental “shopping the closet” visualization, and a useful way to stifle the urge to buy new things. Why does this effect occur? That will be the subject of a future blog post.

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