How Luxury Consumption Meddles with Our Moral Compass
Updated: Sep 2
Written by Jareef Martuza, Ph.D. candidate at the Norwegian School of Economics
Join Yajin Wang as she unravels how luxury consumption impacts us and those around us.
Photo credit: Alexandra Maria at pexels.com.
While we can’t grow flashy tails like peacocks, some of us can certainly buy handbags that cost more than cars. We are all familiar with the reasons why people buy luxury products: self-expression, appreciation of craft, and enhancing – and signaling to others – one’s status. However, what remains unclear is how using luxury products affects our psychology and behavior toward others. Yajin Wang, in collaboration with Deborah Roedder John and Vladas Griskevicius, embarked on a journey to discover the fascinating link between luxury product usage and prosocial behavior during her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. Their journey ultimately led to the article “Does the devil wear Prada? Luxury product experiences can affect prosocial behavior” published in IJRM (2021, Volume 38, Issue 1).
Wang et al. (2021) conducted a series of experiments where participants first experienced using an actual luxury (vs. non-luxury) product, and then had opportunities to engage in prosocial behavior. What do you think happened? Were people more, less, or equally prosocial? On a sunny day in June, I had the opportunity to delve deeper into this topic with none other than Yajin Wang herself.
Advancing the science of luxury consumption is worth the price
During her Ph.D. program, Yajin often wondered why and how people consume luxury products. Although she found plenty of research on the drivers of luxury consumption, the consequences of consuming luxury products were unclear.
In everyday life, Yajin noticed that people behave differently when they use luxury products. For example, they seemed more entitled, and would even engage in selfish behaviors such as cutting in line. She wondered, “Is it that individuals with certain dispositions tend to consume luxury products and act selfishly, or is it that using luxury products can make individuals more selfish?”
Yajin adds, “The latter is a causal question that can be answered experimentally, but as you can imagine, the materials for the experiments- actual luxury products- are expensive to acquire.” Nonetheless, when Yajin pitched this to her then-advisor Deborah Roedder John, the stars aligned, and they were off to running experiments with Prada bags and Burberry scarfs.
Private selfishness, public prosociality
Across six experiments, female participants first experienced using either a luxury (e.g., a Prada bag, or a Burberry scarf) or a non-luxury product. Then, they were presented with settings where they could choose to behave selfishly (e.g., taking the last nice pen from a common pile of gifts for everyone) or generously (e.g., donating more to charity).
The findings were startling. Participants who first used luxury products were subsequently more likely to behave selfishly and less likely to behave generously. Why? The team found that using luxury products conferred perceptions of higher social status among individuals, which decreased their prosocial behavior toward others perceivably because watching one's own self-interests is an effective way for people to maintain status or even gain higher status.
Then, does consuming luxury products make us generally less prosocial? It depends. In the private context, Yajin uncovered that using luxury products consistently led to selfish behavior. However, Study 5 in the paper revealed that in the public context, the effect reverses. When their donation was recorded along with their names, participants wearing a Burberry scarf (luxury) donated 50% more money to charity than those wearing a non-luxury scarf. This is because experiencing luxury also evokes a greater drive to enhance one’s reputation which can ultimately bring status to individuals by behaving generously in front of others.
The experimenter can shape beliefs at every step a participant takes
“The goal was always to simulate actual consumption experiences, and so designing and implementing the studies took great coordination,” Yajin recalls. An example of elaborate coordination is Study 6. The idea was to test if making a luxury product less exclusive weakened its effect on prosocial behavior. If an individual’s sense of higher social status is driving the effect, removing the status-enhancing aspect of luxury, i.e., by making it commonplace and not something that sets someone apart, would nullify the effect.
Fig. 1. Effect of luxury products use on public charity donations by luxury product exclusivity.
I can see why this was Yajin’s favorite. “We had a confederate sit on a sofa with a Burberry bag near the elevator which the participant would take to the experiment location. We also put a Burberry umbrella near the lost and found, which was on the way along the path participants were instructed to take,” Yajin fondly recalls.
Indeed, when Burberry was depicted as less exclusive, using it did not increase the sense of social status, and these participants did not donate any more money publicly than those using a non-luxury scarf.
Perhaps, the devil does not wear Prada, but it is Prada that makes the devil? It might, but only in the shadows though. When others are watching, wearing luxury can turn the same person into an ‘angel’.
Meet Yajin Wang
What would you be if you weren’t a marketing scholar?
I can see myself involved in performing art. Singing and dancing are something I’m drawn to. Perhaps I’d be pursuing singing and dancing in a more professional capacity.
What drives you to do the work that you do?
Curiosity and impact. Scholars have a vast curiosity- trying to find out why something is the way it is. The layperson may let their curiosity sit but scholars strive to use scientific methods to figure out the underpinnings of what makes them curious.
I’m also driven by the potential impact I can have on people around me. Before, it used to be mostly on college and grad students, but now I can see myself having an impact on MBAs and executives as well. We distill theories and provide executives with different critical thinking and decision-making frameworks. In some ways, my exec students also motivate me to ask more relevant questions in my research. And as a discipline, I think marketing is all about relevance.
This article was written by
Jareef Bin Martuza
Ph.D. Candidate at the Norwegian School of Economics