We have all heard of people indulging in a little “retail therapy.” This common maxim is used to describe shopping as a means of increasing our current moods or ridding ourselves of some stress. As it turns out, the idea of shopping being related to our psychology and self-esteem is not quite as far-fetched as we may have originally thought. As a culture we practice what is known sociologically as conspicuous consumption. Essentially, conspicuous consumption is spending money on goods that are intended to demonstrate our social status. Often, conspicuous consumption refers to the purchase of expensive or luxury items, which are recognized as prestigious status symbols. Studies conducted recently indicate that “retail therapy” is not just a term thrown around when we want to feel better about ourselves by buying. In fact, it seems that our spending habits, particularly of luxury items, are directly related to our self-esteem.
Researchers Niro Sivanathan, assistant professor at the London Business School, and Nathan Pettit, of Cornell University, conducted clinical studies in a lab that were intended to delve into the psyche of what our spending really says about our self-esteem. The results of these studies confirm that we are far more inclined to spend, especially on higher priced items, when we are experiencing periods of low-self-esteem. Why are we buying particularly when we are feeling down? One of the reasons indicated by the studies suggests that we buy in order to create an impressive exterior sense that we are well off. The second reason truly is retail therapy: we shop when we want to soothe internal pain regarding how we perceive ourselves.
Quite simply, psychological forces impact our decision to shop. We all face a great number of challenges daily, and the blows to our egos can be tough to take. It is in these moments that, according to researchers Sivanathan and Pettit, we desire to increase our conspicuous consumption. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the research conducted also indicated that not only do we spend more, but we do so paying mostly with credit cards when our self-esteem is low. The general hypothesis is that using credit cards as a means to purchase high-end goods helps us decrease any guilt we associate with spending large amounts of money.
When we say we are indulging in retail therapy, it really is a truth. Our self-esteem and attitudes towards ourselves influence our shopping habits. We turn to shopping as a means to alleviate stress and as an attempt to improve our perceptions of who we are. Self-esteem can of course be improved by means other than shopping, and it is advisable to learn other habits of coping with stress and low self-esteem. While shopping definitely does bolster our self-esteem, in the long-run it is not a permanent fix. Grabbing some friends and heading to the mall for a day of retail therapy is totally fine. However, it is important to remember that material possessions do not define who we are as people.