Marketing Apr 5, 2010

Desire to Acquire

Pow­er­less­ness and com­pen­sato­ry consumption

Based on the research of

Derek D. Rucker

Adam D. Galinsky

Listening: Interview with Derek Rucker


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In a time of eco­nom­ic down­turn, many Amer­i­cans seem to be spend­ing beyond their means to pur­chase sta­tus-relat­ed items. At the end of 2009, the com­bined debt of Amer­i­cans, exclud­ing real estate debt, was near­ly $2.5 tril­lion dol­lars. While con­sumers can buy a pair of sneak­ers or a toast­er for $30, they fre­quent­ly choose instead to spend $175 for a pair of Air Jordan’s or $380 for a Dualit Toast­er. What dri­ves con­sumers to spend their pre­cious resources on such lav­ish pur­chas­es? New research by Derek D. Ruck­er, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing, and Adam D. Galin­sky, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions, both at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, sug­gests that inse­cu­ri­ty may be the dri­ving force behind this appar­ent­ly irra­tional behav­ior and demon­strates that a com­pen­sato­ry process part­ly under­lies the desire to acquire sta­tus-relat­ed con­sumer goods.

This increased will­ing­ness to pay for sta­tus-relat­ed prod­ucts stems from the belief that obtain­ing such objects will restore a lost sense of pow­er,” the authors com­ment. Ruck­er and Galin­sky found that lack­ing pow­er increased con­sumer desire to pur­chase prod­ucts that con­vey high sta­tus, boost­ing their will­ing­ness to pay for them. Essen­tial­ly, feel­ing pow­er­less is an aver­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal state that peo­ple try to elim­i­nate or dimin­ish. Giv­en that high sta­tus is often a sig­nal of pow­er, demon­strat­ing high sta­tus through the pur­chase of con­sumer prod­ucts is one pos­si­ble means for peo­ple to restore their sense of pow­er. Hence, con­sumers are will­ing to pay high­er prices to acquire such sta­tus-ori­ent­ed items.

Pur­chas­ing Status

Three exper­i­ments were con­duct­ed to test this com­pen­sato­ry hypoth­e­sis. In all exper­i­ments, sub­jects were asked to recall either times when they had pow­er over oth­er indi­vid­u­als (high pow­er) or times when some­one else had pow­er over them (low pow­er). In one exper­i­ment, after com­plet­ing this pow­er-relat­ed recall task, par­tic­i­pants were asked to express their will­ing­ness to pay for dif­fer­ent types of prod­ucts. When expe­ri­enc­ing a sense of low pow­er, sub­jects were will­ing to pay a high­er price to acquire sta­tus-ori­ent­ed items, like silk ties and fur coats, but not reg­u­lar prod­ucts like mini­vans and dryers.

A sec­ond exper­i­ment pro­vid­ed fur­ther evi­dence for the com­pen­sato­ry hypoth­e­sis by show­ing that the same prod­uct can be more or less appeal­ing to peo­ple in dif­fer­ent psy­cho­log­i­cal states accord­ing to how that prod­uct is pre­sent­ed or framed. In par­tic­u­lar, sub­jects expe­ri­enc­ing a sense of low pow­er, com­pared to high pow­er and con­trol con­di­tions, expressed increased will­ing­ness to pay for a pic­ture of North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, but only when it was por­trayed as an exclu­sive item pro­vid­ing high sta­tus, rather than a mass-pro­duced item avail­able to anyone.

Final­ly, a third exper­i­ment con­firmed that sta­tus-ori­ent­ed prod­ucts are indeed per­ceived to pro­vide a sense of pow­er to those expe­ri­enc­ing a state of pow­er­less­ness. In par­tic­u­lar, par­tic­i­pants per­ceived obtain­ing a high-sta­tus prod­uct — an exec­u­tive pen — as con­vey­ing a greater sense of pow­er when they had expe­ri­enced an aver­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal state of powerlessness.

This research offers intrigu­ing insights and impor­tant prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions for both brand man­agers and pol­i­cy makers.

Mar­ket­ing Messages

Brand man­agers should keep in mind that pur­chas­ing behav­ior is often influ­enced by par­tic­u­lar psy­cho­log­i­cal states. Con­sumers who per­ceive an absence or loss of per­son­al pow­er seem to be more sen­si­tive to prod­ucts linked with, or empha­siz­ing, sta­tus. The same prod­uct could there­fore be mar­ket­ed in dif­fer­ent ways to dif­fer­ent tar­gets. Con­sid­er two indi­vid­u­als: one a recent­ly demot­ed banker who feels pow­er­less and the oth­er a suc­cess­ful mil­lion­aire who feels pow­er­ful. Both peo­ple might be con­sid­er­ing buy­ing a Rolex wrist­watch. For the demot­ed banker, the desire to buy the watch could be dri­ven by the need to restore a sense of pow­er. He will there­fore be espe­cial­ly sen­si­tive to claims empha­siz­ing Rolex’s high-sta­tus lux­u­ry image. In con­trast, the suc­cess­ful mil­lion­aire might find an approach empha­siz­ing per­for­mance and style more per­sua­sive then one that relies on brand image.

In a soci­ety where sav­ings are dra­mat­i­cal­ly drop­ping and debt lev­els are sky­rock­et­ing, pol­i­cy mak­ers and con­sumer advo­ca­cy groups can also ben­e­fit from under­stand­ing how peo­ple use pur­chas­es to com­pen­sate for psy­cho­log­i­cal states of inse­cu­ri­ty. This research sug­gests that con­sumers belong­ing to low-pow­er social groups might be more prone to over­spend­ing, despite their eco­nom­ic con­di­tions. Fur­ther­more, indi­vid­u­als going through dif­fi­cult life stages involv­ing pow­er strug­gles, such as teenagers with their par­ents, or col­lege grad­u­ates with their boss­es, might be par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to sta­tus-ori­ent­ed claims and will­ing to over­spend to acquire such products.

Anec­do­tal evi­dence on dif­fer­ences in con­sump­tion sup­port the idea that depri­va­tion of eco­nom­ic resources and sta­tus might prompt com­pen­sato­ry process­es. Ten-time Gram­my Award-win­ning Amer­i­can rap­per Kanye West high­lights this idea in one of his songs when he sings, Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daugh­ter Alexus.” Some researchers have found racial dif­fer­ences in vis­i­ble con­sump­tion, such as cloth­ing, jew­el­ry and cars, with Blacks and His­pan­ics devot­ing a larg­er per­cent­age of their income to these vis­i­ble con­sump­tion items than do com­pa­ra­ble Whites.

Spend­ing beyond one’s means to pur­chase sta­tus-relat­ed items is how­ev­er a cost­ly cop­ing strat­e­gy for deal­ing with psy­cho­log­i­cal threats such as feel­ing pow­er­less,” warn Ruck­er and Galin­sky. They believe healthy com­mu­ni­ties should offer alter­na­tive ways for indi­vid­u­als to self-affirm and gain sta­tus, such as through sports, events, or com­mu­ni­ty activities.

Featured Faculty

Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Co-chair of Faculty Research

Adam D. Galinsky

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2012

About the Writer

Andrea Bonezzi is a doctoral student in the Marketing Department at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

About the Research

Rucker, Derek D. and Adam D. Galisky. 2008. Desire to acquire: Powerlessness and compensatory consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, August, 35(2): 257-267.

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