I’ll just have what you’re having: On feeling left out and buying our way back in

Imagine yourself in this situation. You’ve been asked to participate in a series of marketing studies. That’s fine, because you are getting course credit for it. The experimenter tells you that you are going to record a short video introduction of yourself, which is going to be shown to another participant. Likewise, you’ll see theirs. After these video introductions, you’ll be taking part in an marketing study together.

Now, for some of you, this may already be causing you to feel a little bit tense. In the same situation, you might be asking yourself, Hm, what if he/she doesn’t like me? And, what if I don’t like him/her.

Some of you, on the other hand, might just be thinking, Cool, a new friend… or whatever.

Then, after you send off your video to be seen by the other participant, the experimenter returns to the room and tells you that, Um, sorry, but when the other participant saw your video, they decided not to participate after all.

wah… wah.

Being left out feels bad...

Now how would you feel?

Well, the experiment wasn’t really over, so you wouldn’t have a lot of time to think about it. Next, you are led to another room where you are asked to review a number of consumer items the bookstore is considering stocking. All you need to do is mark which ones you would like to buy, and that will help the university bookstore with their purchasing.

Easy enough, and why not? This is more like the stuff you signed up for in the business school anyway. Among the items are a notepad, a notebook, a package of pens, a magazine, some Oreos, shower, gel, and a package of wrist bands with your university logo and several other items.

So, what would you buy?

The researchers (Nicole Mead, Roy Baumeister, Tyler Stillman, Catherine Rawn, and Kathleen Vohs) hypothesized that when you are feeling left out — socially excluded — you are far more likely to buy the wrist bands than you normally would. Why? Because the university logo wrist bands will make you feel like you belong to something, and after being snubbed, that is what your top priority is… to feel like you belong again.

And the researchers were correct. Compared to participants who were told that their supposed partner had left because of an urgent appointment, participants who thought they had been dumped for personal reasons were more likely to want to buy items that demonstrated their belonging to the group — in this case, the university.

Not impressed enough? The same researchers ran a similar experiment, but this time participants were given a bogus personality test, which made them feel (temporarily) as though friendships might be hard to come by in the future. Next, they were put in a situation where they were asked to choose from among a number of different foods. Among the foods were chicken feet. While there are some among us in North America who like chicken feet, the researchers found that most participants did not want them.

However, when snubbed participants who were paired with someone else (a confederate of the researchers) who was reported to love chicken feet, snubbed participants were significantly more likely to order chicken feet than participants who had not been snubbed.

In other words, after being snubbed, participants were communicating to their partner, I’ll just have what you’re having.

Now, I know what most of you are thinking: I am not that insecure. I wouldn’t order chicken feet or buy wrist bands just to be popular.

Really? That, of course, is what everyone thinks. And yet, the results were repeated in several other designs with many other participants.

Why do these result matter? Well, for one, the researchers also ran a version of the experimenter in which participants were presented with the (fictitious) opportunity to use an illicit drug instead of eating chicken feet. Snubbed participants were far more likely to  just say yes to cocaine, when they thought that their new partner would approve. Being snubbed can cause people to do and buy almost anything in order to feel better about their social prospects.

In our evolutionary past, being snubbed by others might have meant the difference between life and death. In the environment in which we evolved, there were no other groups to could join if it wasn’t working out in our own group. In our evolutionary past, being voted off the island would have been a death sentence. We are evolved to make sure that doesn’t happen, even if it means eating chicken feet and taking drugs we don’t really want to take.

How can you find out how you might have reacted? We encourage you to take the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, the Materialistic Values Scale and the Experiential Buying Tendencies Scales and find out about your own values — as well as those of your friends. We think you may learn a lot about how you relate to money, spending and your social life.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values.  To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase.

The article referenced above is called, “Social Exclusion Causes People to Use Money Strategically in the Service of Affiliation,” and will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research in February, 2011.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a graduate student in the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory at San Francisco State University. Follow @kerryfc


About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
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