Sometimes Retail Therapy Only Makes You Feel Like More of a Failure

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We all occasionally face threats to the way we’d like to view ourselves — getting passed over for a promotion at work means maybe you’re not as successful as you thought, for example. There are, of course, many different strategies for coping with this kind of psychological setback, but the one that interests consumer psychologists is retail therapy, particularly a type of it called “compensatory consumption.” Sticking with the example of a career disappointment, that might mean a setback at work would prompt you to buy luxury goods or other items associated with success. But, according to a new paper published online this week in the Journal of Consumer Research, this is the wrong way to go about making yourself feel better, because it may end up prompting you to dwell on the very thing you were trying to get over. 

In one experiment, the researchers, led by Monika Lisjak of Erasmus University, first undermined the intelligence of some of the 118 New York University students who participated in their study by asking them to recall a time in their academic careers when they felt kind of dumb. The rest of the students were asked to remember the last time they went to the movies, which was meant to prompt neutral thoughts and feelings.

Next, Lisjak told the study volunteers that as a thank-you for participating in the study, their names would be entered into a lottery; some of the students were told they might be receiving a gift that was intended to signal intelligence (for example, a subscription to Scientific American) and others were told they could be getting something that was meant to symbolize creativity (the pretty straightforward example here is a subscription to a magazine titled Creativity).

As it turned out, the students whose intelligence had been threatened who were then told they’d be receiving a product symbolizing smarts reported that thinking about the Scientific American subscription had made them dwell even more upon the time they felt not-so-smart at school. The students who’d been told they might be getting the product signaling creativity, on the other hand, were less likely to say the subscription to the corresponding magazine prompted them to dwell on the time they felt dumb.

A real-life example of this might be that if you’re feeling self-conscious about looking older, going out and buying a bunch of anti-aging products will only remind you that, yeah, you’re aging. (Though this is one of those studies where the lab-to-real-life implications are a little tricky, because the study participants here essentially had the products forced on them instead of choosing them for themselves.) In other words, if you’re looking to buy your way back to happiness, you might be better off buying some product that’s unrelated to whatever is bugging you.