why buying fancy stuff makes us miserable

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Shopping is a faith-based activity – we buy non-essentials because we believe, to some extent, that they will improve our lives. At the very least, we trust an indulgent new purchase to spark some fleeting satisfaction before fading into the tedium of all our other stuff.

Yet according to research from Boston College and Harvard Business School, the psychological effects of buying a fancy new treat are often neither positive nor neutral. For most, owning luxury items actually make us feel bad.

Previous research supports the idea that luxury is appealing to consumers “because it promises status and confidence”, says Nailya Ordabayeva, study author and associate professor of marketing at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “But there has been limited research on how consumers actually feel when they consume luxury products, and we were interested in figuring out whether or not this confidence boost that’s promised by luxury in fact materializes, or are there unexpected consequences of indulging in luxury for consumers?”

Related: Impostor syndrome is a response to a world that doesn’t believe in women

To researchers’ surprise, despite consumers’ expectations that buying a Gucci belt or a Hermès scarf would prove a pick-me-up, they actually experienced a “dissonance between what luxury represents and who they truly are”, says Ordabayeva. “And that generated what we call the impostor syndrome of luxury consumption.”

The study determined that feelings of impostor syndrome are prevalent across age and income demographics. Two-thirds of all 1,000 research subjects, regardless of their income level, felt that sporting a luxury buy made them feel “inauthentic”, as if their true identity was at odds with the opulence the items projected.

Interestingly, Ordabayeva says even luxury products purchased for use in private, like skincare, made consumers feel this way, as did luxury items nabbed on sale.

Now perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute, I buy luxury goods – and they make me feel amazing!” Be warned, you may not find this next part terribly flattering.

Ordabayeva says the one factor researchers determined could reduce feelings of imposter syndrome is “an inherent sense of psychological entitlement”. Entitlement manifested in one-third of research subjects, across demographics, and was evaluated via the psychological entitlement scale, a test that includes items like: “If I were on the Titanic, I’d deserve to be on the first lifeboat,” or “Great things should come my way.”

“We found people who feel inherently entitled, who felt they deserve the best things in life, were the only group of individuals with lower feelings of inauthenticity” regarding their luxury purchases, says Ordabayeva.

Despite these findings, Ordabayeva admits there is still a valid reason to splurge here and there: “There have been robust findings about the social recognition associated with luxury,” she says. “Think of going to a job interview and wanting to impress the interviewer: wearing a luxury watch can help achieve the impression that you’ve worked hard, and make you a more attractive candidate.”

Saliently, the study also found that we experience less dissonance with luxury items when they are marketed as something we deserve. This manipulative rhetoric has emerged as the ultimate marketing tactic of the self-care era. Ordabayeva’s study casts new light on why it’s so effective: by reframing luxury as a need, brands strive to pre-emptively assuage our doubts that their product has any relevance to our lives.

Yet perhaps knowing that marketers are bending over backwards just to make us feel a little less miserable buying their wares is another reason to ensure our luxe purchases are carefully considered. Sure, you may think a fancy new outfit is nice – but is it really you?

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