- Our identities influence our behavior.
- Low self-esteem can lead someone to choose cheaper, less flashy options.
- We seek to confirm our self-esteem through our purchases.
Think back to the last time you went out to a restaurant of your choosing for no particular occasion. Where did you choose to go—and why did you choose to go there? For me, it was the McDonald’s drive-through. Although you can practically smell the French fries from the balcony of my apartment, there may have also been a hidden reason that you and I chose to eat where we did: our self-esteem.
Our identity has an undeniably important impact on how we view ourselves and the world around us. A concept from social psychology labeled self-verification theory finds that we prefer that others view us the same way that we view ourselves.1
For example, if you view yourself as intelligent, you likely appreciate it when someone compliments you for being a smart person. However, if you view yourself as unintelligent, you may feel uncomfortable and downright awkward when someone calls you clever. In other words, we prefer when others view us similarly to how we view ourselves because it justifies our sense of self.
How we spend our money is hardly any different. When shopping, we will often perform mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that we deserve the product we want. Self-esteem plays a key role here, meaning that people with low self-esteem gravitate towards cheaper, more affordable, and more mundane options.
Even factoring in one’s income or budget and frugality as a personality trait, self-esteem can predict which product participants chose to buy.2 Research finds that we tend to self-verify in our buying behavior, meaning if we view ourselves as having low self-esteem, we will choose, consciously or unconsciously, to buy things that reinforce our self-view.
In one study, the researchers measured participants’ self-esteem and asked them how willing they would be to dine at two restaurants, one described as “cool” and the other described as “non-cool”. The study revealed that participants with the lowest self-esteem opted for the restaurant described as “non-cool” whereas participants with the highest self-esteem picked the “cool” restaurant.
Whether we are choosing a restaurant to dine at or shopping for new clothes, the little voice in our heads often finds a way to rationalize what we feel that we deserve. This process can create self-fulfilling prophecies which reinforce habits in our everyday lives—potentially causing us to break the bank due to high self-esteem or to restrict ourselves from getting quality meals or clothing due to low self-esteem.
Each time we are presented with a purchasing opportunity, we get the chance to make a choice that can shift our identity and the way we view ourselves. Whether it be a large, important purchase such as a car or a small purchase like a meal, our identity often butts in to guide us towards an option that fits who we believe we are.
Next time you’re considering where to shop or where to dine at, stop and ask yourself if this is the choice you want or the choice you think you deserve. The reason my last meal was McDonald’s could have been due to my low self-esteem—I thought it was what I deserved on an ordinary evening. Next time, I’ll try sushi.
Swann Jr, W. B. (2011). Self-verification theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, 2, 23-42.
Stuppy, A., Mead, N. L., & Van Osselaer, S. M. (2020). I am, therefore I buy: Low self-esteem and the pursuit of self-verifying consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 46(5), 956-973.