Why we shop to feel better

An executive who feels outmaneuvered at the office invests in high-end pens and briefcases. A woman who feels unattractive after a breakup binges at the makeup counter. A new, insecure student loads up on university-branded hats and sweatshirts.

Researchers have known about "retail therapy" for years.

We know it happens, but on a psychological level, how does it work? How is it that someone feeling unattractive suddenly perceives a pretty scarf as an exceptionally beautiful must-have? What makes a worried executive's eyes latch onto that Mont Blanc behind the glass case?

We learned that when people feel threats to their self-esteem, it reduces their working memory capacity and makes them more inclined to purchase products that make them feel better.

In their paper "Identity Threats, Compensatory Compensation and Working Memory Capacity," Andrea Morales, the Lonnie L. Ostrom Chair in Business and professor of marketing, and her co-authors share the answers to these questions based on their research.

"There had been a black box between feeling threatened and buying products to make you feel good. We learned that when people feel threats to their self-esteem, it reduces their working memory capacity and makes them more inclined to purchase products that make them feel better," Morales says.

The researchers' work also offers intriguing insights that could be used by marketers — or people who want to avoid being swayed by them.

Designing experiments

Morales and the other two researchers — Nicole Coleman, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, and Patti Williams, associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School — conducted a series of experiments to show how social identity threats affect thinking and purchasing decisions.

Prior work by Coleman and Williams revealed that social identity constructs have specific positive and negative emotions associated with them. For example, athletes like to feel angry because they think it helps them compete, but they dislike feelings of sadness or guilt, which interfere with their competitive drive. People volunteering for charitable causes find it useful to feel sad — to them, sadness indicates empathy for the people they're trying to help. But anger is unhelpful in a volunteering context.

The researchers used this information to design their experiments. They had students think about particular social identities — athletes or volunteers, for example — and had them listen to music, view images, or watch videos that were known to elicit specific negative emotions. Depending on which social identity they were thinking about, this emotion was either consistent or inconsistent with their salient social identity.

After that, they were given a cognitive test. In a series of experiments, those who were given material that was inconsistent with their social identity (sights or sounds that made athletes feel sad, or volunteers feel angry) performed significantly worse on the cognitive test than those who were exposed to stimuli that was consistent with their social identity.

In other words, feeling an emotion seen as "wrong" for the salient identity had a negative effect on test performance. This part of the research shows that when people feel they are enacting the "wrong" emotion it threatens their social identity and impacts their thinking. Specifically, according to their results, it lowers working memory capacity.

After taking the cognitive test, the research subjects were then asked to evaluate products. Those who had been exposed to the "wrong emotion" consistently gave higher ratings to products that could help affirm their sense of identity. For example, sad athletes gave higher marks to athletic shoes and bottles of Gatorade than those who felt angry — a feeling athletes consider appropriate and even helpful in an athletic context. People exposed to the inappropriate-emotion material also reacted to identity-related products faster than others did — suggesting consumers are able to process the products they need to reaffirm their identity more easily than nonidentity related products.

The researchers had established a connection between social identity threats and compensatory consumption, but they weren't quite done. In a final experiment, they had athletes write about the values that were important to them, how they have demonstrated those values in the past, and how they would continue to do so. Then the athletes watched a video clip meant to elicit sadness (their "wrong" emotion) and took the cognitive test.

It turned out that affirming their values mitigated the effects of experiencing the inconsistent emotion. People who did the self-affirmation exercise before seeing the sad material did better on the test than those who didn't do the affirmation exercise. Their working memory capacity was higher.

Real-world implications

The researchers' findings about emotions and memory could lead to further research to improve memory training. "No prior research has shown ways to increase working memory capacity other than intense mental training," Morales explains. "What we found is that feeling the right emotion at just the right time has the same beneficial effect."

So if you're cramming for a test, it helps to listen to the right music. "Anything that can create that feeling of synchronicity — of aligning your identity with your emotions — might help," Morales says.

The connection between social identity threats and consumption might be used to drive sales. To most marketers, this connection is not intuitive. Stores that sell athletic apparel often display pictures of competitors standing atop the podium and play hard-driving music. Everything is designed to appeal to the athletic persona.

But Morales' research suggests that aiming for emotions 100 percent consistent with athletes' self-image may be counterproductive for sales. Ironically, a store with pictures of athletes on the walls may want to switch from electronic or heavy metal music to Pachelbel or Bach in order to create the kind of identity contradictions and discomfort that leads customers to try and reaffirm their identity by buying athletic products.

Research by Andrea Morales, Lonnie L. Ostrom Chair in Business and Professor of Marketing

Teresa Meek
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