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The Psychology Behind the $500,000 Handbag

Unreliable relationships can be more powerful than trustworthy ones.

Key points

  • Our most seemingly irrational desires usually have rational reasons explained by the psychological mechanisms underlying them.
  • Luxury brands often win big by using the same strategy seen in people with narcissistic personality disorder and/or high levels of psychopathy.
  • Contrary to popular belief, negative, unreliable relationships can exert stronger influence than positive, trustworthy ones.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to create a strong emotional bond with someone is to build trust by being reliable, dependable, and predictable. Trust is the glue that binds relationships.

It should therefore come as no surprise that many businesses invest so much money and effort into customer relationship management through responsive consistency in service and branding. Yet some luxury brands seem to do the exact opposite. Why?

Negative Relationships Can Create Stronger Bonds

Psychologists have long argued that negative interaction is actually a path to stronger bonding, and that inconsistency, not reliability, amplifies emotional ties. Harvard professor B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviorism, observed this decades ago when he taught lab mice to push a lever to receive food. In contrast to the mice that received the tasty morsels consistently every time a lever was pushed, the mice that received random rewards at irregular intervals became addicted to lever pushing (Skinner & Ferster, 1957). This phenomenon is called “intermittent reinforcement,” and it is still known today as among the most powerful motivators on the planet.

Our brains learn through the satisfying release of dopamine. When we make a prediction and it comes true, we are rewarded with the secretion of dopamine. Once it is learned, we no longer need the reward of dopamine to encourage our behavior. Dopamine neurons get even more excited by surprising rewards, such as discovering that a hard-to-find handbag you’ve always wanted just arrived at your local store. This “gimme more” neurotransmitter is responsible for wanting, craving, and motivating us in many ways, including the desire for sex, drugs, gambling, and even shopping.

Intermittent reinforcement is also seen in people who are high in psychopathy and in personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder. Despite largely lacking the capacity for genuine empathic connections, individuals with these traits intuitively captivate and manipulate others while also elevating their social status. The more erratically and infrequently they offer breadcrumbs of affection, the more their victims tend to crave their love and seek their approval.

This emotional rollercoaster of reward and punishment is called “traumatic bonding.” In traumatic bonding, the victim bonds to the abuser because of poor treatment, not despite it. This bond enables the abuser to exert control and influence others. Dutton and Painter (1981) indicated that this only occurs in the context of a key environmental factor—an imbalance of power. If a highly narcissistic abuser lacks the upper hand, intermittent reinforcement loses its grip.

Adaptations, Not Illnesses

Some researchers have begun to view psychopathy and narcissism not as illnesses per se, but rather as adaptations that can confer advantages in life. As Holtzman et al. (2015) put it, “We suspect that variability in narcissism has been preserved across evolutionary history because the particular costs and benefits associated with narcissistic attributes depend on a wide range of environmental factors.” These researchers suggest the “novel idea that narcissism has been selected for two primary advantages—because it facilitates short term mating and helps to elevate a person within a dominance hierarchy.”

Similarly, Pullman et al. (2021) states, “psychopathy has historically been conceptualized as a mental disorder, but there is growing evidence that it may instead be an alternative, adaptive life history strategy designed by natural selection.” When comparing psychopaths to neurologically healthy individuals, these researchers report: “Our results fail to support the mental disorder model and partly support the adaptive strategy model.”

The main goals of these adaptions are to attain and maintain status. While everyone can appreciate an occasional boost in prestige, people who are high in psychopathy or narcissism, or both, tend to pursue high status at all costs. As Grapsas et al. (2019) concluded, “Narcissists are driven by a dominant status motive, meaning that it overshadows other motives, such as the motive for affiliation.” In other words, their motivation to climb the social ladder eclipses their need to maintain close relationships.

Human Instincts as Marketing Strategies

Our brain’s reaction to intermittent rewards is capitalized on by some brands. Take Hermès, one of the most powerful brands in the world. Currently, the iconic Parisian brand ranks 23rd worldwide, according to Interbrand. Its coveted Birkin bags command the highest prices in the world, ranging from $9,000 to a record-setting $500,000 at auction. Despite no prominent logos featured on the bag, the Birkin has become the ultimate symbol of elevated status.

Interestingly, Hermès built its brand without a marketing department, instead using its self-proclaimed “anti-marketing” approach that focused on personal relationships. This method flies in the face of traditional customer-centric models. Because the handmade bags are so scarce and demand so high, the sales associate, not the customer, has the dominance in the relationship. The customer must establish and nurture relationships with sales associates to earn the chance to be allowed to buy a Birkin. Customers have reportedly waited years to buy a single bag. And, while the customer waits, they can buy a fancy fragrance, an upscale scarf, or a luxurious watch to earn the affection of and strengthen the bond with the salesperson.

Even if the customer is graced by the ability to buy the prized bag, they still aren’t permitted to choose the color, the type of leather, the hardware, the size, or stitching, because every bag is uniquely hand-made. As no two bags are alike, the features available are often essentially random. But that rarely stops a customer from buying.

Don’t Try This at Home

Unlike highly narcissistic individuals—who usually seek to deceive, devalue, and take value from others—Hermès does provide value through social and financial benefits. The bags provide value not only in the form of rarefied status but also as an investment over time. The Birkin bag has reportedly “outpaced both the S&P 500 and the price of gold in the last 35 years,” according to Time Magazine. In fact, Hermès leaves money on the table every year, as resellers demand even higher prices on the black market, which is difficult to control. That hasn’t stopped the brand from becoming an $18-billion company today with a total workforce of nearly 17,000 people that has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

Brands don’t live on the shelves of luxury boutiques; they live within the minds of people. As with all psychological phenomena, there are underlying neurobiological and psychosocial mechanisms in play. Intermittent reinforcement is just one of them. Of course, this doesn’t work with just any brand. It must be combined with a power differential.

If you see yourself as somehow lacking or having the lesser hand in a relationship, ask yourself: “Am I really in love with that Himalayan crocodile leather handbag? Or that diamond tennis bracelet? Or that ridiculously expensive watch?” Maybe there is something else going on here. Not all strong bonds are formed out of love and trust—especially when you’re the only one in the relationship who feels that way.

Facebook image: Camera Rules/Shutterstock

References

Dutton, D., & Painter, S.L.. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology. 6. 139–155.

Grapsas, S., Brummelman, E., Back, M. D., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2019). The “why” and “how” of narcissism: A process model of narcissistic status pursuit. Perspectives on Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/1745691619873350

Holtzman, N. S., Donnellan, M. B. (2015). "The Roots of Narcissus: Old and New Models of the Evolution of Narcissism." Evolutional Perspectives on Social Psychology: 479–489. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-12697-5_36 source: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-319-12697-5_36 isbn: 978-3-319-12697-5 https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/psych-facpubs/122

:Pullman, L. E., Refaie, N., Lalumière, M. L., & Krupp, D. (2021). Is Psychopathy a Mental Disorder or an Adaptation? Evidence From a Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Psychopathy and Handedness. Evolutionary Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/14747049211040447

Skinner, B. F., & Ferster, C. B. (1957). Schedules of Reinforcement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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