… (among other reasons.)
So, have you ever seen someone strutting around with an expensive handbag, yet dressed in cheap clothing and getting into a junky car? Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s noticed this.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so much of this at colleges, but every time I see a Coach handbag on the shoulder of someone who demonstrates that they don’t really have to money to afford a Coach bag, I end up suspecting that they’re compensating for something.*
Now, science suggests my prejudices may be true!
In an article titled “The Plastic Trap: Self-Threat Drives Credit Usage and Status Consumption [PDF]” by Nathan C. Pettit and Niro Sivanathan discuss the effect of two psychological phenomena – the desire to protect the self through compensating by consumption and the lack of pain when consuming by credit card. The authors conduct two experiments on volunteers.
In the first experiment, volunteers were asked to tell the researchers about a purchase they were thinking about making in the near future, and give the researchers the retail price of the purchase. After this, the volunteer was given a test on spatial reasoning and randomly assigned to either the 12th percentile or the 88th percentile of test performance.** Then the researchers assigned the volunteer to either write about a value that was most important to the volunteer, or least important to the volunteer. The volunteers who wrote about the value that was most important to them will use that opportunity to self-affirm, while the ones who wrote about values that are least important to them could not self-affirm. After this exercise, the volunteers could choose whether they planned to pay for their purchase with cash or credit on a nine-point scale.
After all of this, what are the results?
Wuh-ow. Check this out: Threatening feedback with self-affirmation, and non-threatening feedback with and without self-affirmation all hover slightly above the 3 line (the expected likelihood of paying with credit on a 1 to 9 scale). But threatening feedback (the 12th percentile judgement) combined with that inability to self-affirm (writing about their least important value) created a situation where the likelihood of buying an anticipated purchase on credit went up to nearly 5.
So, retail therapy rears its ugly head. I admit, it’s a bit of a stretch to connect a designer label handbag to this study, but here’s my logic: let’s take a bunch of people who are feeling pretty threatened. They don’t have much money or power. They may have jobs that are menial or don’t carry much social or personal significance. They may be in a position where they receive frequent, repeated threatening stressors in the course of their normal, daily routine. Combine that lifestyle with easy credit that can painlessly buy an artifact of social significance that one can wear to proclaim to the world that one is, in fact, a person of means and style, and that one should be admired for their taste and purchasing acumen; and you end up with the Coach handbag as it seems to be frequently worn.
Now we get to the crux of why I don’t purchase Coach (or designer, for that matter) handbags.*** While the main message of the designer handbag is that the wearer has taste, style, and money; the subtext is (to me) that the wearer my be compensating for a lack of taste, style, and money, which is enough to prevent me from buying and wearing the Coach purse.
PS – If you want to read about the second experiment, click the link to the article. It’s pretty good.
* You may be wondering how I can live with all the cognitive dissonance when you compare this post with the one where I tell you not to judge wealth by lifestyle. I believe I’m being internally consistent when I say that someone who is aggressively building wealth is very unlikely to buy a Coach purse. I think they will be consistently frugal, and consistently buy low-cost clothing. I suspect that if they own a Coach handbag, it will have probably been given to them.
** If you’re in the 12th percentile, it means that you performed better than 12% of the population. If you’re in the 88th percentile, it means you outperformed 88% of the population. It’s a really science-y way of saying either “You’re stupid.” or “You’re smart.”
*** This is a problem I have with most designer handbags, but Coach is the most egregious one. I guess it’s because I saw a lot of otherwise poor college students sporting Coach handbags while I attended Purdue University. The same argument could also be made for anything bearing the Burberry check.