People Shopping for ‘Meaning’ Buy Cheaper Goods

People Shopping for ‘Meaning’ Buy Cheaper Goods

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Danone Portugal introduced a new yogurt named Juntos, which means “together” in Portuguese. Danone Portugal will donate yogurt to any family that buys a pack of yogurt.

Danone had done their research. People are increasingly willing to purchase from brands that do good and have a purpose. A yogurt that helps the poor would be appealing. Juntos was a failure. Juntos was pulled from the market by Danone, despite Danone investing millions in a state of the art marketing campaign. This happened just months after its launch. The same product is now marketed as a tasty yogurt. What’s the deal?

In the case of Juntos it is possible that putting too much emphasis on meaningful choices may have backfired. My research has shown that people who value meaning tend to buy less stuff. This surprised me. This finding surprised me. But in a series of experiments, involving more than 2,800 people in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, my colleague Lawrence Williams at the University of Colorado Boulder and I consistently found that was not the case. People tend to focus on the price tag , rather than the source of meaning in the product, experience, or service they are purchasing. People may find themselves less benefitted as a result.

For example, we showed people a variety of pairings, such as two cooking classes, two coffee shops, or two cameras. We asked them to choose one option from each pair they would buy. Some people were also given a prompt. Some people were also given a prompt.

We then created an experiment that allowed people to choose the purchase they want, just in case our results were different from what we had suggested. Specifically, people received a budget of PS75 (approximately $100 at the time) to shop on Amazon. Most people will find something meaningful thanks to Amazon’s large selection of products. Participants were aware that they could receive the products they chose, plus any money that they didn’t spend. This made the study more real. For instance, if they chose a PS30 product, they would receive it along with PS45. Again, people were asked to choose less expensive products than those without a goal.

Why were meaning-seekers sacrificing their values? To find out, we asked participants to describe their decision-making process. We found that meaning-oriented people didn’t think about how the product, experience, or service they might purchase could bring them joy. They were more interested in what they could do with their money. People thought about donating the money to charity, or setting aside money for their children’s education fund. Spending money might not have been a meaningful activity, so they looked at the money they could save by purchasing the cheaper option.

I study savings with a focus of strategies that benefit consumers’ well-being. I support people making smart and strategic financial decisions. However, cheap products can lead to other problems. Cheaper options may not last as long than the more expensive ones. We shop more, which can be worse for our wallets. This spending can also have a greater impact on the environment. Thanks in part to fast fashion, people buy 60 percent more clothing today than they did 15 years ago. The fashion industry alone is responsible for more global carbon emissions that international flights and maritime shipping. Meanwhile, mass-produced “fast furniture” is coming under scrutiny, in part for stuffing landfills. Anyone who has purchased electronics or appliances over the past decade knows low durability and rapid disposal is a common trade-off for cheaper goods.

In addition, by buying cheaper products, meaning-oriented people may be missing out on the opportunity to use spending as a tool to create meaning.To unpack this idea, think about the Mastercard Priceless campaign. Mastercard’s advertisements show a series of purchases that lead to a “priceless” final moment. Although it’s a gimmick it does capture something real. Mastercard isn’t trying to convince you that shopping for things is worthwhile. Mastercard is communicating how your purchases can create meaningful moments.

Some people are hesitant to make a connection between meaning and spending. This could be due to cultural and societal attitudes. In the countries we studied, people are bombarded with advertisements promising products or services that will deliver infinitely more than what they actually can. For example, creams that keep your skin young and cars that offer a life of luxury. People may become receptive to the idea that spending money can give them a sense of purpose. Oscar Wilde said that a cynic is someone who “knows the price of everything and the worth of nothing

There are ways to overcome our addiction to cheap options. We have found that reminding people to focus on the current purchase, rather than what else they can buy, helps reorient meaning-seekers to the benefits of what they are spending on.

For example, we asked people whether they wanted a basic or a premium photo album. People who prioritize meaning favored the cheaper option. We also asked meaning-seekers to weigh the pros and cons of each option. They preferred the handmade premium album because it could preserve their memories in a beautiful, long-lasting manner. Similar to the previous question, meaning-seekers were encouraged to choose premium products over their cheaper counterparts by telling them that durable products are more common. They were reminded that more expensive products, experiences, and services could provide more benefits over time than cheaper ones.

Don’t focus on what you are saving or spending, but think about what you’re buying.

Are your interests in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American‘s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at pitchmindmatters@gmail.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

    Nicole Mead is a behavioral scientist at the Schulich School of Business, York University in Toronto, Canada. She studies the psychology and sustainability of money and makes surprising suggestions for people to live their best lives. Nicole is the founder of the Well-Being Research Lab (WiRL) and the author of the blog “The Happy Consumer” for Psychology Today.

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