Researchers have long studied the relationship between self-threat and compensatory consumption and have found that individuals who feel threatened or inadequate frequently demonstrate a tendency to engage in a variety of counterproductive behaviours. For example, when people sense that their socioeconomic identity or status is threatened, they feel the need to demonstrate their earning ability and often react by buying larger-than-life, conspicuously branded goods as if to signal to the world that they “have arrived” (Veblen 1899; Han, Nunes and Dreze 2010). In other instances, when people face threats such as the break-down or end of relationships or problems at work, they shop and consume to distract themselves. Most people can think of a time when they found solace in a tub of ice cream or a bag of potato chips after facing some sort of rejection. These, and other unhealthy behaviours, are very common strategies to cope with and overcome threats in one’s day-to-day life.
Self-worth is a favourable opinion of oneself and is contingent on one of several aspects of our identity. Our self-worth is drawn by any aspect of our identity that we consider to be important, whether it be our relationship with family and friends, spirituality, intelligence, or some other characteristic (Crocker and Park 2003). An athlete’s self-worth might largely rest on his physical capabilities and perceived fitness. A scientist’s might be contingent on her perceived intelligence and general competency. A socialite may draw his self-worth from the people he knows and the things he owns. Individuals’ sense of self-worth, which is essentially how favourably they see themselves, can be shaken when they experience a psychological threat to that important aspect of their identity; we call this self-threat. When the athlete realises that he is not as physically fit as many others, when the scientist’s research is criticised by her peers, and when the socialite faces social exclusion, each experiences self-threat. As mentioned earlier, when humans face such situations of self-threat, they typically engage in a variety of unhealthy consumption behaviours such as excessive shopping (to compensate for hurt feelings) or excessive consumption of fatty foods. These behaviours temporarily distract individuals from the threat, bringing them relief and restoring their sense of self-worth. In our latest research, we find alternate methods to manage one’s self-worth after experiencing a psychological threat.
Healthy Alternatives for Countering Selfthreat
Researchers have already looked at the purchase of status-signaling, conspicuous goods (such as the famous Louis Vuitton signature monogram tote bag), as a mechanism to counter damaged self-worth. We propose that while people who feel threatened do prefer to consume branded goods, they also seek more intense sensory engagement from their environment in general, even experiences that are devoid of status-enhancing cues such as brand logos. We call this sort of consumption high intensity sensory consumption, (HISC) and define it as a consumption experience that involves a heightened stimulation of the senses via enhanced levels of key sensory properties, such as brightness of colours, volume of music, intensity of texture, and so on. Thus far, research has only looked at the consumption of status-enhancing goods (e.g. branded goods, expensive goods, etc.) as an outcome of self-threat (Sivanthan and Petit 2010; Dubois, Rucker and Galinksy 2010). We, however, find that not only do individuals seek status-enhancing goods after experiencing self-threats, but that they also consume goods that are very high in sensory stimulation, even when such goods are completely devoid of statussignalling properties such as a luxury brand. We find that after facing threats, people prefer “flashier” or “louder” products and that after consuming such products, they actually feel better about themselves. We show through a series of experiments that exposure to such high intensity sensory properties elevates people’s arousal levels, which in turn seems to suppress negative thoughts related to the threat, and therefore improves people’s self-worth.
Our self-worth is drawn by any aspect of our identity that we consider to be important… Individuals’ sense of self-worth, which is essentially how favourably they see themselves, can be shaken when they experience a psychological threat to that important aspect of their identity; we call this self-threat.
The more threatening the feedback, flashier the purchase
In our initial study we found that when a group of students was exposed to threatening feedback regarding their general competence levels, they had a much higher likelihood of purchasing “flashier” products than those who did not face a similar psychological threat. Those who were threatened not only reported liking conspicuous, “gaudier” products, such as a Swarovski-encrusted flash drive more than those who did not experience a threat, but they also reported that they were much more likely to buy such a product. In contrast, people whose identity was not threatened reported a preference for much more subtle designs. We repeatedly found this pattern of preference across many different product categories. People who felt bad about themselves seemed to gravitate toward more visually conspicuous, “loud” product designs.
In order to better understand this phenomenon, we carefully designed several other experiments to examine self-threat behaviours. In subsequent experiments, we found that when we subjected people to self-threat, they had an innate preference for intense sensory stimulation at a very basic level. In one of our studies, after experimentally manipulating the threat, we found that our subjects had a much higher preference for brighter shades over duller shades in the same colour family. In another study, we found that people who faced a similar psychological threat chose to listen to music at a much higher volume than those who did not face self-threats–almost if they were “drowning their sorrows” through loud music. And while we had robust documentation showing that individuals seek HISC after experiencing threats, we were still unsure about why this was happening.
In follow-up studies, we found that when people felt dejected after receiving threatening feedback, they opted to consume products and experiences with high intensity sensory properties, and as a result of the HISC, they arrived at a more aroused or alert frame of mind. What we also know from past research is that when people are in high arousal states (think of the last time you were engrossed in watching a nail-biting cricket match or exciting movie), their ability to think deeply about things is diminished. In such high-arousal states people have a tendency to “gloss over” facts or use mental shortcuts. We find that the high arousal properties of sensory experiences such as bright colours and loud music temporarily impair people’s ability to elaborate upon the negative experience they had. In a sense, the arousing properties of loud music and bright colours distract people from the threat they experienced, and as a result, they feel better about themselves, much as they would have had they spent US $3,000 on a Louis Vuitton bag or 3,000 calories on a large brick of ice cream.
High intensity sensory consumption or HISC is a consumption experience that involves a heightened stimulation of the senses via enhanced levels of key sensory properties, such as brightness of colours, volume of music or intensity of texture. People prefer “flashier” or “louder” products and after consuming such products, they actually feel better about themselves.
Our research implies that when consumers feel low about themselves, they can restore their self-worth by engaging in a variety of non-detrimental activities involving HISC, such as visiting an art museum, wearing brightly coloured clothes (visual stimuli), or listening to music at a loud volume (auditory stimuli), rather than indulging in the consumption of high calorie “comfort” foods. So the next time you’re feeling bad about not getting the promotion you wanted or not being invited to a social gathering, don’t reach for a bag of chips or a Gucci bag. Instead, sit back, pump up the volume and let your worries fade away.
This research was supported by the EY-ISB Initiative for Emerging Market Studies grant awarded jointly to both authors for the period 2015-2016.
Crocker, Jennifer and Lora E. Park (2003), “Seeking self-esteem: Construction, maintenance, and protection of self-worth,” In M. Leary & J. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of Self and Identity, 291-313. New York: Guilford Press.
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