In 1899, a brilliant but stubborn economist named Thorstein Veblen coined a term that proved quite useful in the following century and beyond. His theory of “conspicuous consumption”—basically, purchasing certain goods in order to show off—introduced a way of thinking about why people buy things that are expensive and unnecessary.
Veblen established the basics of the concept, but, even nearly 120 years later, researchers are still making sense of how people practice it. And what they’re finding is that people tell themselves all sorts of stories—some true and some less so—about whether owning visibly luxurious things (like cars, watches, or electronics) will serve them well.
One story that’s true: Acquiring something luxurious can temporarily increase one’s self-esteem. One story that’s not: Acquiring something luxurious can impress potential friends.
A recent study by Stephen Garcia at the University of Michigan explores that second myth. He and his co-authors set up a variety of hypothetical scenarios and asked subjects what they’d choose to do in one of two roles—either as someone trying to make friends or as someone evaluating potential friends. They found that there’s an imbalance in how the people in the latter position perceive those in the former. “People think … that status is going to attract new friends,” he told me. “However, it actually has the opposite effect—that is, people would rather befriend, in a conversation or in an interaction, someone who doesn’t display [high-]status, but rather more neutral markers,” like a Timex instead of a Rolex.