The Psychological Insight From a $2.95 Cup of Coffee

Every small purchase choice gives us a glimpse of our hidden self-identity.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

Here's a remarkably perceptive insight about consumer psychology from the 22-year-old film You've Got Mail: Making a simple, everyday decision to buy a $2.95 (in 1998, perhaps $4.95 now) cup of coffee can help us to create a sharp definition of our self-identity, one small choice at a time. (The relevant bit starts at 0:35 in the video.)

In the movie, Tom Hanks's character says,

"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy a cup of coffee. Short… tall… light… dark…nonfat… So people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on Earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self. Tall… decaf… cappuccino!"

Consumer psychologists think about self-identity a lot. Much of this research is about how a person's self-identity influences their buying choices and how many people use possessions and brands to create and maintain one's identity. For example, after their identity is activated (by signing their name as opposed to writing something else), consumers are more engaged in buying activities that are part of their self-identity. For instance, runners spend more time choosing from different brands of running shoes.

Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash
Source: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

In the same way, an individual's choice of a tall decaf cappuccino speaks volumes to observers about what sort of person they are. In buying the coffee at Starbucks, each small choice is independent of the others (though this need not always be the case). What I mean is that whether you choose a tall or grande-sized drink is unrelated to whether you put sweet cream in your coffee.

Every small choice reveals something about the coffee purchaser's identity. For example, someone who chooses a tall-sized drink instead of buying a grande or venti size that would have cost only a little more money (and given better value) is restrained and set in their ways. Someone who drinks decaffeinated coffee likes to be in control, and so on. A rich portrait of the coffee buyer's identity emerges from the Starbucks drink that they choose.  

However, in the movie clip, Tom Hanks's character's assertion flips this idea on its head. He suggests that the choice is much more than a way to communicate one's identity to others. The process of making a series of small choices about coffee conveys information to the person themselves.

With every small choice that we make, by accepting one option and rejecting competing ones, we have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to reinforce that learning. And once it is learned, this type of self-knowledge can inform our other decisions, not just about which products to buy, but also about our preferred lifestyle, relationships, money matters, and so on.

Making virtuous small choices (for example, skipping the caramel syrup or sweet cream or asking for almond milk instead of full-fat milk) may signify that I am serious about my diet and health. This insight may help me reinforce my self-identity as a health-conscious person and make healthier food choices in the future. The caveat is that we must make these small choices thoughtfully and pay attention to how we are choosing.

All of this is to say that our self-identities are amenable to construction, and our small choices (and large ones) contribute to this process. Maybe I am reading too much into this movie clip, but isn't this insight worth paying a few dollars to Starbucks for?