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Your Need to Belong May Affect Your Economic Decisions

Retail Therapy and Charitable Giving Soothe the Soul
Lindsay Starke

Which do you find more soothing: retail therapy or giving to charity? Your answer might tell us something about your personality, but it also might also tell us how you feel about your place in your social environment. New research suggests that feeling ignored may encourage conspicuous consumption, while feeling rejected may make you more likely to give money or time to a worthy cause. The logic is as follows: Ignored? Make yourself stand out. Rejected? Perform good deeds in order to make yourself accepted again.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments that left their volunteers feeling either ignored or rejected, e.g. by explicitly disregarding or antagonizing participants in online exchanges in order to simulate social exclusion. Later, the researchers gave participants seemingly separate surveys on intended and actual behavior, asking about preferences for brand logos (to measure their inclination toward conspicuous consumption) and willingness to donate time or money to charity (to measure their inclination toward prosocial behavior).

"Being ignored increased preferences for clothing with conspicuous brand logos, but it had no effect on prosocial behavior," the authors write. "In contrast, being rejected increased prosocial behavior, but had no effect for clothing with conspicuous brand logos."

The researchers concluded that when a person's sense of belonging is threatened by social rejection, we may unconsciously attempt to compensate with prosocial behavior, like volunteering, in order to reconnect with society and prove our value to the group. When our sense of importance, or ego, is threatened by being ignored, we then may be inclined to consume on a grander scale in order to stand out from the pack.

What does this mean for you? Your economic choices may not be as rational as you think. In fact, something as tiny as whether your morning coffee came with a side of non-acknowledgement or rejection from the barista could impact what you do with your wallet for the rest of the day. So, feeling extravagant or generous?


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