You Are What You Buy (Even When It's A Gift For Someone Else)

Jun 10, 2011 by Bryan Saunders

Recently, cognitive psychologist Dan Ariely conducted a study in which he gave participants designer sunglasses and told these participants that the sunglasses were either real or fake.

In fact, all of the sunglasses were real $300 designer sunglasses, but—for the sake of the study—Ariely lied and told half of the participants that the sunglasses were counterfeits.

The goal of the study, called “The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive Costs of Faking It” was to see if wearing “counterfeit” products caused a change in the way that people acted vs wearing real designer products.

Why People Buy Counterfeit Products

Ariely noted that people often buy designer products to show others that they are powerful, affluent, and fashionable.

That said, while lots of people want to be seen as powerful or affluent, not all of them can afford a real Louis Vuitton purse or real Chloe Sunglasses. As a result, some purchase cheaper counterfeit versions instead, so that they can look more rich or more powerful than they really are.

Possibly, these people might even get further ahead in life as a result of wearing counterfeit products.

The Cost of Wearing Fake Products

Ariely’s study found that wearing “counterfeit” products can have unintended side-effects: participants wearing “fake” sunglasses cheated more often than those wearing real sunglasses. And, when participants were wearing “fake” sunglasses, they also judged others around them as being less ethical.

In a nutshell, wearing “fake” products make people act more fake and judge others around them as fake as well. Ariely’s research found that this was true when people don’t consciously choose to buy the counterfeit product, but also when it is given to them as a gift.

Interestingly, in another study of his, Ariely's found that luxury products could also act as a placebo: people wearing sunglasses branded as the luxury brand "Ray Ban" performed better on a visual task than participants wearing identical sunglasses branded as "Mango."

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Morgan Ward, a professor at the Cox School of Business, recently conducted a study that took Ariely’s research one step further, by showing that what we buy for others can also affect our later behaviour.

The study, called “It’s Not Me, It’s You: How Gift Giving Creates Giver Identity Threat as a Function of Social Closeness,” looks at what happens when we buy a gift for a close friend that isn’t necessarily a gift we’d want to receive ourselves. What are the consequences of this?

You Are Who You Surround Yourself With

It’s a common saying that you can tell a lot about a person based on who they surround themselves with. Indeed, it seems that we get a large part of our identity from our family and peers.

That said, we don’t always share the same tastes as our friends and family. So what happened when participants in Ward’s study had to choose a gift that their friend liked but that the participants themselves didn’t?

As Ward found out, these participants experienced something that she calls “identity threat” and sought to restore their threatened identity by quickly doing something to re-establish their identity.

For example, if a friend loves a sports team that you hate, buying that friend a mug with that team’s logo on it will make you want to do something later to show that—even though you bought that mug as a gift—you are still not a fan of that team.

Implications for Sales, Marketing, and Business

After someone makes a purchase, a lot of online (and brick-and-mortar) retailers like to suggest other products which the customer—based on their purchase—may be interested in.

However, Ward’s research suggests that this might not always be the best thing to do.

If a person is purchasing something as a gift for someone else, and especially something outside of their normal comfort zone, Ward’s research shows that retailers shouldn’t say, “Would you like something else like that?” rather they should ask, “And how about picking up something for yourself as well?”

For example, if a man has just picked up some tampons from the drug store for his wife, Ward’s research suggests that there’s a very good chance that he’ll be more receptive to buying something more masculine right after, to re-establish his threatened male identity.

This may seem like such a small market that it’s not worth focusing on, but according to a recent Unity Marketing Report, consumer spending on gifts for friends and family accounts for approximately 10% of the total retail market in the United States.

As you can see, helping gift buying customers re-establish their threatened identities could be worth a lot of money.

Have you ever felt like Frasier's dad: embarrassed by a purchase you made as a gift for someone else? Or, have you ever felt invincible while wearing designer sunglasses or while driving an expensive car? Let me know in the comments section below!

Bryan Saunders - Contributor

Bryan Saunders is a researcher, marketing consultant, and internationally published writer.

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