Want Stuff? Why We Are Driven to Buy More

Feel the urge to buy more of the latest fads, gadgets, or products? Here's why.

Posted Jun 10, 2019

I know people who seem to be buying things all the time. A steady stream of brown boxes arrives at their doorsteps, carrying their latest online purchases. Weekly trips to the mall are a fixture on their calendars. Why do we want stuff? Psychological science provides a number of possible answers.

It Feels Good

At the heart of it all, stuff makes us feel good, and we all love feeling good. Many human behaviors are rewarded with pleasurable feelings (caused by the chemical dopamine). Buying stuff can release those same pleasure chemicals, and for many of us, our natural addiction to feeling good can hence be easily satisfied by buying something.

Products can make life easier; look at the number of separate kitchen appliances available to make every element of cooking faster and more convenient. Buying can also help us counter the stressors of life.

Long discussed as retail therapy, research supports the notion that buying is a coping response and is tied to stress and depression. While not the antidote for everyone's ills, shopping can provide short-term relief for many. Shopping can also be entertaining, distracting, fill an empty schedule, or aid procrastination.

Got a project you are not enjoying or looking forward to? Go buy something instead. Buying something is also a common celebration. Achieved that goal? Reward yourself with that book you have been wanting.

We Cannot Help It

There are many reasons we just cannot help buying stuff. We find it hard to resist a good deal, love getting something on sale, and in fact, are more likely to pay for an expensive item on a discount than if that item was first available at the lower price. A bracelet for $80? No way. The same bracelet now $80 price slashed from $120? Yes, please.

This is not the venue to discuss free will, but I will hazard that many purchases are driven by unconscious processes, primarily by conditioning. The more you are exposed to advertising, the more likely you are to crave products. Network television, magazines, and even the internet are peppered with ads. Each ad is engineered to make the product seem appealing using basic principles of conditioning.

In many ads, having a product is shown to be associated with many rewarding factors. Wear our brand, and people will enjoy hanging out with you. Drink our beverage, and you will be surrounded by smiling, attractive friends. Repeated exposure to the ads makes the product seem more appealing (a phenomenon called the mere exposure effect), and we tend to desire the rewards associated with the products shown. The more you watch, the more you want that item to reap all that comes from owning it.

We Need It

While conditioning can explain many purchases, early work by Abraham Maslow suggested humans are driven by a number of needs. Although originally arranged as a hierarchy, where it was thought we need to accomplish the first need before moving on to the second, today, it is assumed (as Maslow also suggested) that the different needs overlap.

While not extensively tested empirically, and not culturally universal, the major needs—physiological, safety, love-belonging, esteem, and self-actualization—can be seen as major motivations to buy stuff. If you have resources, you can purchase commodities that will go a long way towards satisfying these common human needs.

We Like Novelty

It is easy to get bored. Humans are designed to habituate to what stays the same. While at first, you notice a noisy fridge, you can easily ignore it over time. While a new car is exciting to drive or a new pair of shoes nice to wear around town, the thrill of driving the car or wearing the shoes becomes passé. We need a newer car or newer shoes to bring back the excitement.

Just like children who plead for a new toy only to then, weeks (or days) later, leave it unattended as their attention is drawn to a newer toy, adult attention is likewise drawn to novelty. In fact, new research shows that social media programming that personalizes ads to individual web surfers can increase the novelty value of a product and increase purchasing (see Dodoo & Wu, 2019).

We Feel Special

When you have something that no one or few others have, you may feel special. This may explain why people stand in long lines or even travel to distant lands to be the first to buy something. When you are unique, you get more attention, and this attention can be reinforcing. A far cry from being the kid with the cool, novel lunchbox, in today’s world, buying the newest app and flaunting its use can give you the attention and may also contribute to a drive to buy.

You can extend feeling special to cover enjoying having something others do not have. Having more stuff is a sign of prosperity and the easiest way to flaunt your status. More cars in your garage? Clearly, you are well-off. A large closet full of designer shoes? You are implicitly showing you can afford them (regardless of the truth of that).

Social comparison may be at the heart of feeling special. We often compare ourselves to those who have more (upward social comparison) or those who have less (downward social comparison). Getting closer to those in higher status and further away from those in lower status by buying things could be an implicit (or conscious) drive for many.

As you can see, many factors can influence purchasing and the accumulation of stuff. Why, then, do we keep it all? Well, that’s a story for another day.