Wearing a Sequined Tuxedo to Work? Maybe You’re Feeling Jealous.
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Marketing Nov 3, 2017

Wear­ing a Sequined Tuxe­do to Work? Maybe You’re Feel­ing Jealous.

Jeal­ousy can steer us toward atten­tion-grab­bing prod­ucts, even when they are inap­pro­pri­ate for the setting.

An employee wears an attention-grabbing suit to work.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Xun (Irene) Huang

Ping Dong

Robert S. Wyer Jr.

We like to think of our­selves as ratio­nal con­sumers. We decide what to buy based on objec­tive fac­tors, such as price, qual­i­ty, and style — right? 

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Not exact­ly. What’s hap­pen­ing in our inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships — a spouse’s wan­der­ing eye, a boss show­er­ing praise on a cowork­er when you used to be the one sin­gled out — could have a big impact on which prod­ucts appeal to us.

This is the find­ing in research from Ping Dong, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kel­logg, who explored the role of jeal­ousy in shap­ing con­sumer choic­es. Along with coau­thors, she finds that feel­ing jeal­ous increas­es people’s desire for eye-catch­ing prod­ucts — those that are ornate, bright­ly col­ored, con­spic­u­ous­ly brand­ed, or even inap­pro­pri­ate to a giv­en social situation. 

The find­ing is in line with oth­er research show­ing that a person’s moti­va­tion in one domain can spill over and influ­ence behav­ior in an entire­ly unre­lat­ed domain. For exam­ple, when peo­ple go shop­ping with a growl­ing stom­ach, they won’t just fill their cart with more snacks — they will reach for unnec­es­sary tchotchkes, too.

Hun­gry peo­ple acti­vate the goal to acquire things — not just more food, but also more non­food items,” Dong explains.

It’s the same sto­ry with jeal­ousy and atten­tion-seek­ing behav­ior. Peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing jeal­ousy often feel that the atten­tion usu­al­ly reserved only for them — whether from a roman­tic part­ner, par­ent, or boss — has been tak­en away. The desire to again attract atten­tion from that spe­cif­ic per­son leads jeal­ous peo­ple to favor items that draw atten­tion more broadly. 

Feel­ing jeal­ous made sub­jects want atten­tion — and want­i­ng atten­tion made them favor flashy gear. 

Jeal­ousy can actu­al­ly moti­vate peo­ple to seek atten­tion from the gen­er­al pub­lic, and in order to achieve that moti­va­tion, they pur­chase prod­ucts that are atten­tion-grab­bing,” explains Dong, who stud­ies how emo­tions affect con­sumer choice. (In a pre­vi­ous study, she explored how feel­ings of pride influ­ence con­sumers’ desire for unique­ness.)

While there is a rich body of research on the social and inter­per­son­al con­se­quences of jeal­ousy, this is the first study that extends to con­sumer behavior. 

How Jeal­ousy Impacts Shop­ping Behavior 

To test how jeal­ousy influ­ences prod­uct pref­er­ences, Dong teamed up with Irene Huang of the Nanyang Busi­ness School at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty and Robert S. Wyer of the CUHK Busi­ness School at the Chi­nese Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong. The researchers ran five exper­i­ments — the first with stu­dent par­tic­i­pants, the oth­er four with sub­jects recruit­ed online — each explor­ing a dif­fer­ent aspect of the green-eyed monster. 

First, the team asked study par­tic­i­pants to recall and write about a time they either felt jeal­ous or felt neu­tral emo­tions. Then, in an osten­si­bly unre­lat­ed exper­i­ment, they asked par­tic­i­pants to choose between clothes and acces­sories adorned with either a large or small brand logo. They also asked par­tic­i­pants to rate their desire for attention. 

The sub­jects who had writ­ten about jeal­ous­ly grav­i­tat­ed toward promi­nent brand logos and craved atten­tion more strongly.

This effect of jeal­ousy on con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion was explained by par­tic­i­pants’ desire to get atten­tion,” Dong says. Put anoth­er way, feel­ing jeal­ous made sub­jects want atten­tion — and want­i­ng atten­tion made them favor flashy gear.

Jeal­ousy vs. Envy 

But jeal­ousy can feel sim­i­lar to oth­er emo­tions. The researchers next homed in on whether this is a response unique to feel­ing jeal­ous, or whether it can be trig­gered by oth­er, relat­ed emotions. 

In one exper­i­ment, the researchers com­pared the effect of jeal­ousy with that of its emo­tion­al cousin, envy. 

As in the first exper­i­ment, the researchers asked par­tic­i­pants to recall an expe­ri­ence where they either felt jeal­ous, envi­ous, or emo­tion­al­ly neu­tral, and then pick between a dull gray coat or a bright yel­low one. Those prompt­ed to think about jeal­ousy favored the yel­low coat 57 per­cent of the time; the envy and con­trol par­tic­i­pants chose it just 35 and 24 per­cent of the time, respectively.

Anoth­er exper­i­ment con­trast­ed jeal­ousy and powerlessness. 

In it, par­tic­i­pants were asked to recall a time they felt either jeal­ous or pow­er­less. Then, they imag­ined they were shop­ping for either a high-end or a low-end item of cloth­ing. Would they pre­fer that item have a promi­nent logo or an incon­spic­u­ous one? 

Pow­er­less sub­jects pre­ferred promi­nent logos only if the cloth­ing was high-end; jeal­ous sub­jects favored atten­tion-grab­bing logos on both high-end and low-end gear.

Dong believes this is because when peo­ple are feel­ing pow­er­less, they pre­fer goods that are high-sta­tus, which can sig­nal to oth­ers that they are high sta­tus.” Not so for jeal­ous peo­ple, who seek to draw atten­tion from even low-sta­tus items.

In fact, jeal­ous people’s hunger for atten­tion can land them in sit­u­a­tions where they are inap­pro­pri­ate­ly dressed, anoth­er exper­i­ment found.

Peo­ple prompt­ed to feel jeal­ous favored a sil­ly-look­ing pair of asym­met­ri­cal plas­tic sun­glass­es (not unlike what you might see at a New Year’s Eve par­ty) over a more sedate pair, even when they were told the eye­wear would be worn to a for­mal work party.

silly-looking sunglasses Originally used in: Ames, D. R., & Iyengar, S. S. (2005). Appraising the unusual: Framing effects and moderators of uniqueness-seeking and social projection. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 271–282.

The pow­er­less and neu­tral par­tic­i­pants were not that crazy,” Dong says. They tend to pre­fer a reg­u­lar pair of sun­glass­es, espe­cial­ly for the pow­er­less peo­ple. When you are feel­ing pow­er­less, you do not want to be risky.” 

Inter­est­ing­ly, the team’s final exper­i­ment revealed that the pref­er­ence for eye-catch­ing prod­ucts among the jeal­ous dis­ap­peared when they were told the prod­uct was intend­ed to be used at home where no one could see them, rather than at the office. 

Using the Psy­chol­o­gy of Jeal­ousy to Make Bet­ter Choices 

Under­stand­ing these impuls­es can make us more aware of why we are attract­ed to cer­tain prod­ucts — and remind us to check our­selves before we wear a sequined tuxe­do to work the day after our col­league lands the pro­mo­tion we had been gun­ning for. 

Mar­keters might also ben­e­fit from know­ing when con­sumers might be more recep­tive to flashier objects, though Dong notes that it is impor­tant to deter­mine whether this find­ing holds when peo­ple are actu­al­ly expe­ri­enc­ing jeal­ousy, as opposed to recall­ing the feel­ing, as they did in these experiments. 

She would like to see whether people’s stat­ed pref­er­ences for atten­tion-grab­bing prod­ucts trans­late from the sur­vey to the store. In the real world, when embar­rass­ment and rep­u­ta­tion are at stake, will a jeal­ous per­son actu­al­ly wear those sil­ly sunglasses? 

In the mean­time, she has been keep­ing an eye on some of her more jeal­ousy-prone friends and their shop­ping behav­ior. Do they favor eye-catch­ing prod­ucts? I do find some anec­do­tal evi­dence,” she says.

Featured Faculty

Ping Dong

Assistant Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Citation: Huang, Xun (Irene), Ping Dong, and Robert S. Wyer Jr. 2017. “Competing for Attention: The Effects of Jealousy on Preference for Attention-Grabbing Products.” Journal of Consumer Psychology. 27 No. 2 (April): 171–181.

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