The Science Behind Luxury: Why We Pay Top Dollar For Things We Don’t Need

Luxury goods are all the rage, and there's a clear psychological reason why. It just might not make you feel good about your latest Prada purchase.

October 25, 2017
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Whether we’ve got the budget for it or not, luxury goods will probably never go out of style.

On the contrary, they couldn’t be more au courant. Globally, annual sales for luxury brands are rising at more than $200 billion per year.

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So what drives us to buy these products? They’ve clearly tapped into a side of us that we just can’t suppress.

You may have many words to describe it, but there’s only one umbrella emotion that covers it all: pride. We buy luxury goods out of pride.

So is pride a good or a bad thing? That would depend on how you look at it, as well as which type of pride you’re experiencing.

Pride is two-faced.

Just as we would imagine it, one face is pretty admirable. The other? Not so much. But both sides play into our national love affair with luxury brands.

Let’s look at this long-standing tagline from Rolex: “A crown for every achievement.”

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Rolex (via Vimeo)

The idea that Rolex is working with is that if we feel accomplished, our authentic pride will lead us to seek out a reward. For example, after your boss announces that she would like to promote you, that feeling of accomplishment could lead you to buy yourself the new Apple iPhone. Or maybe you know that you will need a car for your first job, and since you graduated with honors, a car with all the bells and whistles is in order.

Well-meaning enough, right? It’s the type of pride we encourage in others.

Yet there’s another face for pride, and it’s called arrogance.

Imagine a handsome man driving a Mercedes-Benz with a beautiful woman in the passenger seat. She laughs at something he says and leans into him. Finally, he turns and sees you. He rolls up the tinted windows, hits the gas, and leaves you in the dust.

You go home, open a magazine, see the shine of that car once again—a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. “A class ahead,” the advertisement reads.

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That’s the sort of image we tend to have when picturing hubristic pride. It’s snobbery. It’s also the feeling other luxury brands might try to give us when they market their products. They want us to imagine ourselves as that luxury car driver.

They want us to think about how it must feel to have what others want.

These two marketing schemes were not created equal.

So which is more likely to work?

Almost a decade ago, researchers Brent McFerran, Karl Aquino, and Jessica L. Tracy set forth to answer that question.

McFerran, an associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University in Canada, tells HealthyWay that he and Aquino were interested in studying luxury brands, and Tracy was in the middle of a study on the expression of pride.

“We thought there was a natural overlap there, particularly the association that seems to be held among many laypeople linking hubristic pride and luxury brands,” he says.

What they found through their combined research is that while authentic pride is more likely to drive a luxurious purchase, the results can actually be more hubristic.

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In the paper “Evidence for two facets of pride in consumption: Findings from luxurious brands,” the researchers recount the time that one of them (they remain tight-lipped about who) had lunch with a friend and noticed a beautiful pair of sunglasses on the table.

He asked for an opportunity to try them on and found the sunglasses to be lightweight and perfectly fitting on the bridge of his nose. These weren’t cheap sunglasses. They were Prada.

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Prada (via Eyewear Connection)

He stood up from the table and walked to a nearby mirror, noticing several people glance in his direction, “the way people sometimes do when an arresting object catches their eye,” the paper states.

He stood up straighter and imagined wearing the glasses while taking a walk down a beach promenade.

After returning to the table, he was reluctant to give the glasses back. They had given him an air of superiority that he didn’t want to lose.

This, the authors say, is what we refer to as hubristic pride, or arrogance.

So here’s what we learned from the study:

There were seven experiments in total. In one, researchers gave participants a task that would lead them to feel either authentic or hubristic pride. The participants who completed the task and felt authentic pride were more likely to express a desire for luxury goods than those who felt hubristic pride, it turned out.

Authentic pride, in a phrase, made them want a Rolex, not a Casio.

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In another, the researchers measured the chronic feelings of accomplished and snobbish participants. Those who experienced higher levels of accomplishment tended to have a stronger desire for luxury goods.

These two experiments led the researchers to believe that people are more motivated to buy luxury goods when they have a sense of authentic pride—hence the effectiveness of the Rolex tagline.

Still, this does not mean you’re safe from snobbery.

The key word that connects authentic pride to a luxurious good here is the purchase of the product.

The consumption of the product, though, is another story.

In one experiment, participants imagined an item they owned. Researchers found that if the item was a luxury brand, the participants were more likely to display hubristic pride.

Furthermore, no matter what your intentions are, other people will probably look at your luxury purchase as an act of snobbery.

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The authors note in the paper that this highlights a paradox.

“These purchases are sought out of heightened feelings of accomplishment (and not arrogance), but they instead signal arrogance to others (rather than accomplishment),” they wrote.

Not everyone will experience a change in attitude, though.

There are a select group of people who seem to be a bit immune to the effects of luxury consumption.

According to the paper, McFerran and his fellow researchers believe those high in narcissism are less likely to experience a surge in hubristic pride when they use a luxury good.

That might sound backward, but it’s only because narcissists are naturally high in hubristic pride anyway. Adding on a luxury good isn’t going to increase that feeling much more.

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But for a person low in narcissism, good intentions can unfortunately go awry.

This finding, the paper states, “documents for the first time that what is often thought to be an adaptive form of pride (authentic pride) can give rise to another, presumably less desirable, form (hubristic pride).” In other words, honest pride can lead to arrogance.

Additionally, those low in narcissism might even experience an emotion reversal and feel ashamed for their use of a luxury good because they realize they look snobbish to outsiders.

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The folks who feel this way are not wrong, either. The researchers conducted another experiment for their study in which participants were asked to read a story in that the narrator listed his favorite items. In one version of the story, luxury items were listed, while in the other version, non-luxury items were prominent.

Participants who read the story about luxury goods rated the narrator as more hubristic than participants who read the story about non-luxury products. Furthermore, the participants regarded the “hubristic” narrator to have more anti-social qualities.

Think back to the guy driving the Mercedes. We sort of couldn’t stand him, right? That’s because we generally find snobbery to be pretty unattractive.

But despite the embarrassment we might feel later, we continue to buy luxury goods.

That’s because it probably hasn’t occurred to you yet how others could perceive it.

“As consumers, and as people more generally,” McFerran says, “we do not often do a good job of predicting how others will view our actions.”

The lead author says this is something he’s learned over the years to check in with himself.

“Given what I research, I am fairly conscious about what a particular product might signal about me to those around me,” he says.

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Still, it’s not exactly surprising that one form of pride could lead to another. They’re both pride, after all.

“Authentic and hubristic pride are somewhat correlated,” McFerran says, “So they can both go hand-in-hand in a sense.”

Knowing all this, we could make more informed purchases in the future.

It should be noted that this study isn’t meant to drive you away from luxury brands. Many people purchase luxury goods because of a perceived (and often accurate) notion that they are better quality and will last longer or be more enjoyable.

Surely there’s a difference in taste between a cheap beverage and an expensive, aged bottle, for example. Or perhaps you want the Dr. Martens boots because you know they will last a lot longer than the knock-offs.

After all, you get what you pay for.

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The concern is more for people who don’t really have a reason to spend that extra dollar, especially when they can’t realistically afford it.

As McFerran mentions in his blog for Psychology Today, there’s a growing number of consumers who are obsessed with luxury brands.

Perhaps family members, financial advisers, or counselors could help the consumer to make a more self-aware decision before purchasing a luxury good, he says.

And of course, this research can help companies that sell luxury goods to market their brands more effectively, probably tapping into that sense of accomplishment instead of snobbery.

Just keep in mind that if an authentic Dr. Jekyll makes the purchase, he might bring along a hubristic Mr. Hyde for later.

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