By Susie Allen
We like to think of ourselves as rational consumers. We decide what to buy based on objective factors, such as price, quality, and style—right?
Not exactly. What’s happening in our interpersonal relationships—a spouse’s wandering eye, a boss showering praise on a coworker when you used to be the one singled out—could have a big impact on which products appeal to us.
This is the finding in research from Ping Dong, an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg, who explored the role of jealousy in shaping consumer choices. Along with coauthors, she finds that feeling jealous increases people’s desire for eye-catching products—those that are ornate, brightly colored, conspicuously branded, or even inappropriate to a given social situation.
The finding is in line with other research showing that a person’s motivation in one domain can spill over and influence behavior in an entirely unrelated domain. For example, when people go shopping with a growling stomach, they won’t just fill their cart with more snacks—they will reach for unnecessary tchotchkes, too.
“Hungry people activate the goal to acquire things—not just more food, but also more nonfood items,” Dong explains.
It’s the same story with jealousy and attention-seeking behavior. People experiencing jealousy often feel that the attention usually reserved only for them—whether from a romantic partner, parent, or boss—has been taken away. The desire to again attract attention from that specific person leads jealous people to favor items that draw attention more broadly.
Feeling jealous made subjects want attention—and wanting attention made them favor flashy gear.
“Jealousy can actually motivate people to seek attention from the general public, and in order to achieve that motivation, they purchase products that are attention-grabbing,” explains Dong, who studies how emotions affect consumer choice. (In a previous study, she explored how feelings of pride influence consumers’ desire for uniqueness.)
While there is a rich body of research on the social and interpersonal consequences of jealousy, this is the first study that extends to consumer behavior.
How Jealousy Impacts Shopping Behavior
To test how jealousy influences product preferences, Dong teamed up with Irene Huang of the Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University and Robert S. Wyer of the CUHK Business School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The researchers ran five experiments—the first with student participants, the other four with subjects recruited online—each exploring a different aspect of the green-eyed monster.
First, the team asked study participants to recall and write about a time they either felt jealous or felt neutral emotions. Then, in an ostensibly unrelated experiment, they asked participants to choose between clothes and accessories adorned with either a large or small brand logo. They also asked participants to rate their desire for attention.
The subjects who had written about jealously gravitated toward prominent brand logos and craved attention more strongly.
“This effect of jealousy on conspicuous consumption was explained by participants’ desire to get attention,” Dong says. Put another way, feeling jealous made subjects want attention—and wanting attention made them favor flashy gear.
Jealousy vs. Envy
But jealousy can feel similar to other emotions. The researchers next homed in on whether this is a response unique to feeling jealous, or whether it can be triggered by other, related emotions.
In one experiment, the researchers compared the effect of jealousy with that of its emotional cousin, envy.
As in the first experiment, the researchers asked participants to recall an experience where they either felt jealous, envious, or emotionally neutral, and then pick between a dull gray coat or a bright yellow one. Those prompted to think about jealousy favored the yellow coat 57 percent of the time; the envy and control participants chose it just 35 and 24 percent of the time, respectively.
Another experiment contrasted jealousy and powerlessness.
In it, participants were asked to recall a time they felt either jealous or powerless. Then, they imagined they were shopping for either a high-end or a low-end item of clothing. Would they prefer that item have a prominent logo or an inconspicuous one?
Powerless subjects preferred prominent logos only if the clothing was high-end; jealous subjects favored attention-grabbing logos on both high-end and low-end gear.
Dong believes this is because “when people are feeling powerless, they prefer goods that are high-status, which can signal to others that they are high status.” Not so for jealous people, who seek to draw attention from even low-status items.
In fact, jealous people’s hunger for attention can land them in situations where they are inappropriately dressed, another experiment found.
People prompted to feel jealous favored a silly-looking pair of asymmetrical plastic sunglasses (not unlike what you might see at a New Year’s Eve party) over a more sedate pair, even when they were told the eyewear would be worn to a formal work party.
The powerless and neutral participants “were not that crazy,” Dong says. “They tend to prefer a regular pair of sunglasses, especially for the powerless people. When you are feeling powerless, you do not want to be risky.”
Interestingly, the team’s final experiment revealed that the preference for eye-catching products among the jealous disappeared when they were told the product was intended to be used at home where no one could see them, rather than at the office.
Using the Psychology of Jealousy to Make Better Choices
Understanding these impulses can make us more aware of why we are attracted to certain products—and remind us to check ourselves before we wear a sequined tuxedo to work the day after our colleague lands the promotion we had been gunning for.
Marketers might also benefit from knowing when consumers might be more receptive to flashier objects, though Dong notes that it is important to determine whether this finding holds when people are actually experiencing jealousy, as opposed to recalling the feeling, as they did in these experiments.
She would like to see whether people’s stated preferences for attention-grabbing products translate from the survey to the store. In the real world, when embarrassment and reputation are at stake, will a jealous person actually wear those silly sunglasses?
In the meantime, she has been keeping an eye on some of her more jealousy-prone friends and their shopping behavior. Do they favor eye-catching products? “I do find some anecdotal evidence,” she says.
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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