Study of the Day: Retail Therapy Works, Even Before the Heartbreak

Shopaholics, rejoice. New research from Northwestern shows that it's possible to proactively curb stress from an expected setback.

Study of the DayDiego Cervo/Shutterstock

PROBLEM: To deal with a failure, difficulty or a disappointment, many people engage in retail therapy. But do consumers shop to cope only after the fact?

METHODOLOGY: Northwestern University marketing researchers Soo Kim and Derek D. Rucker conducted five experiments where they distinguished between reactive and proactive compensatory consumption. In one experiment, they threatened the self-identity of undergraduates in a prestigious university by asking them to play a virtual game that measured their "perceptual intelligence." Before they began, however, they were invited to participate in an ostensibly unrelated shopping exercise where the products were either related to intelligence (e.g. a dictionary) or neutral (e.g. a box of chocolates).

RESULTS: Most of the subjects reacted similarly to the meaningless objects. The students whose smarts were threatened, however, were willing to pay more for the threat-related product than those who weren't threatened. Interestingly, the respondents who were primed to doubt their abilities were also willing to shell out more cash for the items that made them feel smart than the other merchandise.

CONCLUSION: Consumers engage in proactive retail therapy against future challenges, and, when they do, they prefer products that protect their self-image.

IMPLICATION: Retail therapy isn't as mindless or impulsive as commonly assumed. An unsure test-taker, for instance, might choose a bottle of Smart Water before taking his SATs to boost his confidence. As the scientists put it in their paper: "Prior to receiving any negative feedback, consumers select products that are specifically associated with bolstering or guarding the part of the self that might come under threat."

SOURCE: The full study, "Bracing for the Psychological Storm: Proactive versus Reactive Compensatory Consumption," is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In