Skip to navigationSkip to content

We all buy things to improve our self-image—but that doesn’t make us shallow

AP Photo/David Kohl
Vendors and members of the media look over Murray’s Cheese from New York, a specialty cheese shop inside Kroger’s Fresh Fare store, Monday, Nov. 17,…
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A woman plays terribly during her morning tennis game, but because she’s an expert on wine, she spends the afternoon buying wine for her collection. A business student graduating near the bottom of his class decides to treat himself to a particularly expensive suit. A man steps on a bathroom scale after the holidays, frowns, and resolves to join a gym.

What do they all have in common?

All three are using consumption to compensate for what Stanford Graduate School of Business marketing professor Jonathan Levav calls “self-discrepancy.” That is, they appear to be trying to resolve an incongruity between how they currently see themselves and how they want to see themselves.

“I think wanting to compensate is natural, and wanting to feel good about yourself is healthy,” says Levav, who studies consumer behavior and behavioral decision theory.

Levav knows one thing for sure: Compensatory behavior is wired deeply into the human psyche. He coauthored a paper, “The Compensatory Consumer Behavior Model: How Self-Discrepancies Drive Consumer Behavior,” in a recent issue of Journal of Consumer Psychology with Naomi Mandel of Arizona State University, Derek D. Rucker of Northwestern University, and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University.

The authors cataloged and delineated five basic strategies that people use to compensate for unresolved self-discrepancies:

  • Direct resolution: an effort to solve a discrepancy directly.The overweight man staring down at his bathroom scale might try to directly resolve his unhappiness about his weight and fitness level by committing to a gym membership.
  • Symbolic self-completion: an effort to signal a desired identity. That’s the grad student with the suboptimal GPA trying to overcome his academic shortcomings with an extra-fancy suit.
  • Dissociation: avoiding unwanted associations.A man facing a menu choice between a ribeye steak and a “ladies cut” filet mignon might choose the more masculine-sounding option, regardless of his appetite.
  • Escapism: using consumption to distract yourself. Often described as “retail therapy,” this might be a husband or wife who decides to hit the mall to avoid thinking about a disagreement with their spouse.
  • Fluid compensation: consuming in a different domain that highlights your strengths. The frustrated tennis player could be an example of this; unhappy with her morning game, she might choose to spend the afternoon doing something she enjoys and is likely to do well.

Levav says self-discrepancies are “psychologically aversive,” which means they’re unpleasant because they cause you to realize that you’re something different than what you want to be.

“None of those reactions surprise me,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons why we engage in compensatory behavior. The problem is that people don’t always know why they do these things. They don’t like to admit that they’re compensating for some kind of weakness or sense of weakness.”

The ways people compensate are as individual as their fingerprints. “Everybody can use some type of consumption to compensate for perceived threats,” he says. But the strategy they choose “can depend on what their self-esteem is tied to. For one person it might be that she’s a Stanford alum, but for someone else it might be working out at the gym.”

Levav makes no judgments about whether compensation behavior is good or bad, but says further research eventually might help people determine if they’re compensating in healthy ways. “Fixing the problem strikes me as better in the long run,” he says. “Buying ice cream isn’t the best answer to failing a test — the better answer is to study harder. If we can get people to be more strategic about how they compensate, to really think about it, we’ll have done them a service.”

He also cautions that giving into a compensation impulse shouldn’t always be interpreted as a bad thing. If the man who buys a sports car to boost his self-image puts his family’s welfare at risk by doing so, yes, most would agree that’s unhealthy. But if he can afford it and it makes him feel better about himself each time he gets in the car, why not? “True, for him it’s a form of compensatory consumption, and maybe doing that all the time is unhealthy,” Levav says. “But if you do it once and it works, is that bad?”

Levav hopes that researchers continue to explore the topic, including the ways these behaviors are influenced by culture, gender, and individual factors. For example, why do men in Tunisia prefer to wear designer labels on the sleeves of their suits, even though men in most cultures cut those labels off after they get their new suit home?

“Psychology is a black box, and it’s a challenging one,” he says. “People have a choice of strategies they can select to compensate for weaknesses and threats. But when and why do they choose to use the various strategies they have available to them? We just don’t know. That’s the big hole in the literature.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.