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Associate Professor Derek Rucker (pictured left) and doctoral student Soo Kim found that when consumers are in the heat of threat, they increase consumption to distract themselves from those feelings.

Associate Professor Derek Rucker

Why do we buy?

Associate Professor Derek Rucker and doctoral student Soo Kim examine new dynamics between threats and consumption

By Daniel P. Smith

8/1/2012 - When individuals fail on a dimension important to the self, they often experience psychological tension created by a discrepancy between their actual and desired self.

To compensate, one might consume symbols that signal mastery on the threatened dimension. A tennis player concerned with the possibility of defeat, for instance, might purchase branded tennis apparel to ward off a potential threat to his sense of self.

Understanding this dynamic holds significant implications for brand managers and marketers, particularly with respect to product positioning, and new research from Associate Professor of Marketing Derek Rucker and doctoral student Soo Kim offers game-changing perspectives on the literature on psychological threat and consumption.

Slated to appear in this December’s Journal of Consumer Research, Rucker and Kim’s “Bracing for the Psychological Storm: Proactive versus Reactive Compensatory Consumption” provides evidence for the distinct processes by which consumption addresses threats.

Q: What was the aim of this research?
A: We know consumers use products to respond to psychological threat. However, acquiring products that “symbolically complete” the threatened self is only one way consumption can address threat. Distraction is another. Researchers need to begin to tease apart when different strategies are used.

Q: What are the study’s biggest takeaways?
A: We found striking differences between the strategies consumers use when they anticipate threat versus experience threat.

For consumers merely anticipating a threat, they engage in greater consumption of products only when they symbolically signal mastery on the domain of potential threat.

In contrast, for consumers experiencing threat, they engage in greater consumption of products, regardless of whether they are symbolically related to the threat. We find evidence this occurs because, in the heat of threat, increasing consumption can help distract oneself from threat.

Q: What was most exciting about your findings?
A: While others have examined distraction or symbolic self-completion in isolation, we’ve taken a first step in examining the critical question of when consumers might observe one strategy or the other.

Q: How is this research relevant to marketers and entrepreneurs?
A: Consumer insight is valuable and important for marketers. Our research offers consumer insight with regard to how psychological threat affects consumption behavior, which is extremely relevant for brands that might consider positioning themselves to address threats or consumer shortcomings, such as how Old Spice recognized consumers’ need for self-confidence and positioned their product as a beacon of confidence.

Further reading

Desire to Acquire: Powerlessness and compensatory consumption