Feel Powerless? Buy Something

A new study gives credence to the idea of "retail therapy."


July 2, 2008 — -- Want to know why you just bought that gadget that you really can't afford? Because you were feeling like a wimp.

A new study out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., shows that the more often we feel powerless, the more likely we are to spend ourselves into the poor house. The study, published in the current edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, contends that when the boss puts you down, you feel so robbed of power that you're more likely to go out and buy yourself some status symbol. When that happens, you're willing to pay a lot more for it than if you felt powerful, a process the researchers call "compensatory consumption."

But buying yourself a fancy gizmo doesn't address the "core problem," said social psychologist Derek D. Rucker, assistant professor of marketing and lead author of the study. Instead of talking it over with the boss and gaining a sense of personal power over your own life, "you indirectly compensate through consumption."

And that, he adds, can lead to a downward economic spiral as you feel more and more powerless to reverse the course. The research is based on three experiments involving scores of undergraduate students at the university.

Rucker readily admits that power is not an easy subject to study.

"Power is a very complex construct," he said in a telephone interview.

"Power stems from general issues of control, from status, from expertise, from knowledge, and so, there's lots of potential ways to look at it. We do it experimentally. In our studies, we induce the feelings of power or powerlessness just by having people recall a time in their past when they remember feeling powerful or powerless."

That might seem to be a very transient emotion, but in previous research, Rucker's co-author, Adam D. Galinsky, demonstrated that the feeling of power, or lack of it, usually lasts at least 30 minutes after recalling a previous experience. That's enough time for the researchers to determine if a person, who feels robbed of power, is more likely to spend lavishly on something like an executive fountain pen with the name of the university embossed in gold.

In all three experiments, the participants who felt robbed of power were more likely to go for the pen, even paying twice as much as the students who felt powerful.

Sometimes, the effect of recalling a past event can last for a long time. Our emotions, Rucker said, are pretty easy to manipulate in a laboratory setting.

"It depends on how central the event is," Rucker said. "If the event is something like the time I got fired, that recollection can stick with me for a day or two."

But the sense of power comes and goes throughout the day, he added. A corporate executive might feel plenty powerful when he's giving orders to his underlings, but when he gets home and his spouse orders him to take the garbage out, his omnipotence can be fleeting.

"Power is a relative state," Rucker said.

"We often think of power as some kind of control," he added. "But it's a multifaceted construct. What gives me a sense of power? The control I have is the key one."

But even that can be fleeting. When Rucker stands in front of his students and lectures them on the psychology of consumer spending, he's in control. But when the time comes for his students to evaluate his performance, he's a wimp. He'll probably head for the nearest BMW dealer.

If his study is on target, when the sense of power goes down, so does your wallet. That's partly because we tend to associate power with status. So, if we lose power, the researchers contend, we may try to make up for that loss, at least emotionally, by buying a status symbol. Yet, not all status symbols work.

A powerful executive who has had a bad day might feel a little loss of power, but he's less likely to go out and buy an expensive watch to smooth his ruffled feathers, because he knows he's still the top dog. But a banker who has just been demoted might be very tempted to snatch up that watch.

"He got demoted, but he just got something that signals that he's still someone," Rucker said.

That's compensatory consumption at work.

Rucker said the purpose of their research isn't to tell corporations how to get more out of dwindling resources. It's to help us help ourselves.

"This is a consumer welfare piece," he said of the study. "We're trying to understand how the consumer psyche works in order to help [consumers] protect themselves."

Maybe if we understand why we're buying all that stuff we can't afford, we can come up with another way of coping. But don't yell back at the boss. Instead, the study suggests, take a hint from the song "All Falls Down" by Kanye West. Do something else that makes you feel like you have status, even if you don't.

Like West's song says, "Couldn't afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexus."

Nice name, and with a gentle bouquet of power.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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