Look on the Bright Side: Self-Expressive Consumption and Consumer Self-Worth

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This research investigates the interplay between self-worth and consumption, and explores the substantive phenomenon of trading up. Laboratory experiments were conducted in which participants were led to fail (or not) on an intelligence test, which threatened their feelings of self-worth (or not). Following the failure, participants made consumer choices. Of key interest was whether threatened self-worth would result in more "trading up" - that is, selecting more expensive products or retail stores. Results revealed that compared to consumers whose self-worth was not threatened, threatened consumers demonstrated more self-expressive consumption: trading up when a product portrayed "me" (high on self-relevance), or not trading up when a product portrayed "not me" (low on self-relevance). Self-relevance was operationalized in terms of choice sets (i.e., the choice between two Duke t-shirts vs. two white t-shirts) and individual differences in the tendency to consider material objects part of the self (this was measured via a questionnaire).

This research also examined two hypotheses regarding how consumption could, in turn, affect feelings of self-worth. The first hypothesis stated that negative feelings of self-worth can be immediately repaired via consumer decisions (here, the decision to trade up or not). Indeed, results revealed that among consumers whose feelings of self-worth were threatened, self-expressive consumption repaired negative feelings of self-worth. The second hypothesis stated that positive attachments between possessions and consumers' feelings of self-worth enable consumers to rely on possessions to protect self-worth. To test this, participants wrote about a possession that was important for who they are and how they feel about themselves (participants in a control condition wrote about a possession important to other people for this reason). Results showed that writing about a self-relevant possession before failing a test buffered the impact on feelings of self-worth. This finding was particularly robust for possessions important to consumers' social relationships.

These findings highlight the bright side of the relationship between consumption and self-worth: consumers respond to threats adaptively - sometimes spending more and sometimes spending less - and functionally - by making consumption decisions that repair self-worth and by relying on possessions to protect self-worth.





Dalton, Amy N. (2008). Look on the Bright Side: Self-Expressive Consumption and Consumer Self-Worth. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/652.


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