With Black Friday , Christmas shopping and the winter sales all approaching, consumers around the world will once again overindulge in systematic unplanned purchases that provide little more than a short-term emotional fix. At times, this can cause long-term problems, such as regret, debt and spiritual emptiness.
It is indeed the season for impulsive buying, one of the few areas in which marketers and businesses appear to be up to speed with the science of psychology, not least because of their desire to leverage it at the expense of consumers’ rationality. From sales assistants who compliment you on your looks, to those who pour you a glass of champagne, and machine-learning algorithms that nudge you into buying things you don’t need – but still want – a big chunk of marketing budgets are devoted to stimulating reckless and mindless spending.
Although most people think of products in terms of their functional characteristics – the instrumental value or utility of products – products are mostly chosen on their symbolic value, ie the psychological meaning they have for consumers. This is particularly true in the case of impulsive buying. This is why John K. Galbraith cynically pointed out that “a person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions.”
As consumer psychologists noted , impulsive purchases occur when consumers perceive that the product or brand they are buying matches their own attitudes and self-views, helping them express and cement their own sense of identity. For example, if you think that you are cool and that it is important to be cool, you will probably be happy to pay a little extra to buy an Apple product (so long as you see Apple as cool). Thus products, and especially brands, play the role of symbolic trophies that consumers use to consolidate their self-concept and communicate it to others. When brands are strong, they are anthropomorphic: they have clearly defined, human-like, personality characteristics, which consumers use as signals to showcase their own personality to others.
In the US it is estimated that impulsive buying generates around $4 billion in sales every year. Early research in this area suggested that up to 62 percent of store purchases may be considered impulsive purchases. Studies have also shown that online purchasing are more driven by impulsive buying behaviours than rational, planned, controlled behaviours. Naturally, there are cultural, contextual and personality factors that determine differences in impulsive buying.
The more individualistic a culture, the more compulsively people will shop. We are also more likely to shop impulsively when we are stressed or when we perceive a lack of control over situations, which is why compulsive shopping increases after extreme environmental events , such as natural disasters. Likewise people who are high on power-distance – individuals who feel they are naturally superior or more important than others – tend to exercise more self-control and are less vulnerable to impulsive buying. Interestingly, we are more likely to shop compulsively when we are with friends , but less likely when we are with relatives.
Oscar Wilde famously noted that he could resist everything except temptation. In reality, people differ substantially in their ability to display self-control and these differences explain individual variability in impulsive shopping. Likewise people who are more prone to buy things impulsively tend to be higher on sensation seeking, a trait that concerns high boredom susceptibility and an appetite for novel and unusual experiences.
It should also be noted that since narcissism levels have been rising over the past decades and narcissistic people spend more effort and money cultivating their look and accumulating material possessions, it is unsurprising that impulsive consumption is on the rise. Compulsive shopping has also been boosted by increased internet addiction, with some scholars suggesting that it is one of the factors fueling online and mobile retail habits.
Like other addictions, compulsive buying ought to generate personal or relationship distress to be deemed compulsive. In other words, it needs to be maladaptive to impair practical aspects of our lives. Thus if you can back it up – or afford it – your compulsions may be trivial and unproblematic. After all, it is plausible that accumulating certain products can provide you with some meaning in your life. To some it is religion, philosophy or political ideology. To others it’s just shopping. The apparent superficiality of the “I shop, therefore I am” statement is easily forgotten when you realise that most if not all alternative human activities are not necessarily more meaningful. Besides, if we were all rational consumers with great self-control and frugal shopping habits, our economy would suffer.
Impulsively or not, consumerism is a source of our psychological identity and a critical symbol in interpersonal communication. As the novelist and futurist William Gibson rightly predicted: “We’re moving toward a world where all the consumers under a certain age will probably tend to identify more with their consumer status or with the products they consume then they would with … any sort of antiquated notion of nationality.”
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at University College London, visiting professor at Columbia University and the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems. He is co-founder of metaprofiling.com and author of Confidence: The Surprising Truth About How Much You Need and How to Get It.