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

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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.

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

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