Consumer research has been around for many decades now and we’ve already learned a lot of about the way we consume. Some of these insights have become so embeded in our knowledge that they no longer seem suprising. For example, we know that branding derives a lot of its power from consumers’ willingness to signal their identities to other people, to self-enhance, and to change others’ impressions in a positive direction, among all else. Luxurious brands are a prime example of this tendency of course.

Interestingly enough, this drive to use branded products to self-enhance and boost one’s capabilities actually works. In this study for example participants were able to answer more difficult GRE questions when using an MIT pen vs an unbranded one. And “”…participants primed with Apple logos behave more creatively than IBM primed [ones]”

What really surprised me last week is an insight from this study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research. It seems intuitive that people always, to the best of their knowledge of course, select the better product. As it turns out, this is not always the case – some people gravitate towards inferior products. Read on to understand who’s more likely to do that and why.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

“We cannot outperform our level of self-esteem.” Iyanla Vanzant

Self-esteem has long been recognized as one of the very basic guiding posts we use for navigating the world around us. The way we think of ourselves, unsurprisingly, impacts how we perceive people and events, how we interact with others, how we treat ourselves, and what decisions we make: “Consumers with low self-esteem tend to doubt that they are likable and capable (Baumeister 2002). They perceive the world as somewhat hostile and chronically fear that they will not live up to their own and others’ expectations (Anthony, Wood, and Holmes 2007; McFarlin and Blascovich 1981; Murray et al. 2000).”

In another article, I touched upon the topic of compensating – our ability to make up for a lack in one area with a boost in another. All of us frequently engage in such behaviours, in most cases unintentionally, and they serve to self-ehnance our identities. With this in mind, one would expect that low self-esteem consumers would try and compensate to feel better about themselves.

Interestingly enough, this is not the case at all: “…research suggests that their insecurities and self-doubt cause them to be reluctant to enhance their self-views, particularly after threat (Dodgson and Wood 1998; Shrauger 1975; Song, Huang, and Li 2017; Swann et al. 1987). Indeed, a meta-analysis concluded that consumers with low (vs. high) self-esteem were much less likely to engage in compensatory behaviors in the wake of psychological threats (van Dellen et al. 2011).”

In essence, the low self-esteem among us actually try to proof that the negative way they view themselves is correct. Why? Because it provides them with much needed stability, safety, and familiarity. In a vicious cycle, low self-esteem nudges people towards situations that confirm their negative views of themselves, while at the same time making them comfortable with these views.


Who would like to buy an inferior product?

How does this unfold in consumption context? People with higher self-esteem would typically approach consumption as a way towards self-enhancement. Numerious studies have shown that “…consumers with high self-esteem created a self-enhancing public self-image to garner attention and admiration (Baumeister et al. 1989), derogated people who criticized them (Baumeister, Smart, and Boden 1996), and preferred to interact with those who saw them in a positive light (Rudich and Vallacher 1999).”

This is not the case with low self-esteem consumers. Because of the need to feel safe, stable, and within the boundaries of the familiar, they would rather look for confirmation of their pessimistic outlook rather than to self-enhance. As a result, and most interestingly, low self-esteem consumers actually gravitate towards inferior products because these products deliver what these people want – a confirmation of their low self-worth.

In what I can only imagine to be a very amusing study, the authors of this article tested preference for alchoholic beverages among people with low vs high self-esteem. In plain English, they asked participants which kind of vodka they preferred: “To illustrate, one product pair consisted of vodka in a glass bottle for $25 (Reyka) and vodka in a plastic bottle for $6 (Skol)”). The results: low self-esteem participants were approximately 20% more likely to select the inferior vodka compared to high self-esteem ones. Interestingly enough, this preference was not related in any way to frugality – it wasn’t the desire to save money that was driving the selection of the inferior product; it was the desire to confirm one’s own negative view of themselves.


So where does this lead us to?

For one thing, brands should be cautious not to automatically assume that all consumers want to buy superior products. Sometimes and for some people a feeling of inferiority migh actually do a better job – remember, low self-esteem people don’t try to compensate; instead, they are after confirmation of their negative self-view.

This same effect might also lower consumers’ experience with a product. Imagine that a low-self-esteem person buys a superior product. If their experience with the product conflicts with the desire to verify their low self-esteem, consumers will ultimately still face an unmet need which will subsequently lower their satisfaction with the product. Ironically, one would think..


My best wishes for a great day ahead!

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