Skip to main content

When 'retail therapy' makes you feel worse

ASU professor studies whether shopping helps after a setback


|
February 04, 2016

If you just flubbed a big work project, you might be feeling down on yourself. Maybe you’ll head to the mall to indulge in a little retail therapy.

Buying products is a common way to make yourself feel better, with half of all Americans reporting that they do it.

But what kind of purchase will make you feel better? A new pair of shoes or a book that describes how to do that project the right way?

New research by an Arizona State University professor Monika Lisjak has found that buying something that reminds you of your setback can make you feel worse.

Lisjak, an assistant professor of marketing in the W. P. Carey School of Business, studied several hundred university students and the article appeared recently in the Journal of Consumer ResearchLisjak's Her co-authors were Andrea Bonezzi, New York University; Soo Kim, Cornell University, and Derek Rucker, Northwestern University..

“What we know from a lot of research is that people do engage in ‘compensatory consumption,’ which is often referred to as ‘retail therapy.’ "

It happens when people feel discomfort because they see a discrepancy between how competent they are and how competent they wish to be.

"One thing consumers do is buy products to try to repair our feelings," she said.

Buying something to improve your competence is called “within-domain compensation,” and it can backfire, she said.

Monika Lisjak

Monika Lisjak studied whether compensatory consumption helped with discomfort. Photo by Cathy Chlarson/W. P. Carey School of Business

“They end up dwelling on their problems,” Lisjak said.

So if you go shopping to feel better and buy a book on how to create a perfect project, it could just remind you over and over of how poorly you did.

That rumination can drain energy, and Lisjak's study found that people in that state were more likely to have low self-control (expressed by eating M&M candies) and were less likely to do well on tasks (solving math problems).

Lisjak said the results could have implications for marketing, with companies being encouraged to sell products that are “across domain” to take consumers’ minds off their setbacks.

In other words, buy the shoes. 

More Business and entrepreneurship

 

Group of students pose for a photo onstage with screens reading "ASU Innovation Open Awards Show" in the background and ASU mascot Sparky in the middle.

ASUio sparks innovation inferno among student entrepreneurs

​Innovation, accessibility and sustainability took center stage at the 2024 Arizona State University Innovation Open. Technology innovation and entrepreneurship were on full display at the event,…

Poster with various colorful words having to do with business on it.

Inaugural biz school competition drives collaboration across Arizona universities

Business in the state of Arizona today finds itself poised for massive growth, with industries like solar power, autonomous transportation and electric vehicle manufacturing bringing unprecedented…

People standing at a digital table looking at notes.

Thunderbird professor receives prestigious teaching award

Euvin Naidoo, distinguished professor of practice for global accounting, risk and agility at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, has been recognized for his…