People Shopping for ‘Meaning’ Buy Cheaper Goods

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Danone Portugal introduced a new yogurt named Juntos, which means “together” in Portuguese. For every pack of yogurt that a person bought, Danone Portugal would donate yogurt to a family in need.

Danone had done its research. Increasingly, people say they want to buy from brands that do good, that give them sense of purpose. Surely a yogurt that helped the needy would be appealing. But Juntos was a failure. Despite sinking millions into a state-of-the-art marketing campaign, Danone pulled Juntos from the market only months after it launched. Now the same product is simply marketed as a tasty yogurt. What happened?

In the case of Juntos, it is possible that the emphasis on meaningful choices backfired. In my research, I have found that when people prioritize meaning, they tend to buy cheaper stuff. This finding surprised me. I shared the intuition that people spend more on meaningful choices. But in a series of experiments, involving more than 2,800 people in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, my colleague Lawrence Williams at the University of Colorado Boulder and I consistently found that was not the case. When looking for meaning, people become focused on the price tag rather than how the product, experience or service they are buying could itself be a source of significance. As a result, people may benefit themselves less.

For example, in several experiments, we showed people pairings of experiences (for instance, two cooking classes), services (such as their choice of a cup of coffee) or products (say, two cameras). We asked them to pick one option from each pair that they would purchase. We also gave some people a prompt. For instance, we encouraged some to “derive meaning from your choices,” reminding them to focus on aspects of these choices that were “purposeful, fulfilling and valuable.” Others were told to “enjoy yourself” and focus on “delight and pleasure.” We found that participants who prioritized meaning preferred the less expensive product, service or experience when compared with people who prioritized pleasure or who had no specific goal.

We then designed an experiment that gave people greater freedom to choose their purchases—just in case our findings reflected reactions to the options we had offered. Specifically, people received a budget of £75 (approximately $100 at the time) to shop on Amazon. The platform’s extensive range of products enables most people to find something meaningful to them. To make the study as realistic as possible, participants knew they could receive their chosen purchases, plus any money they did not spend. For instance, if they chose a £30 product, they would receive it along with £45. Once again, the people asked to make a meaningful choice selected less expensive products than those shopping without a given goal.

So why were meaning-seekers cheaping out? We asked participants to explain their decision-making to find out. We learned that meaning-oriented people were not thinking about how the product, service or experience they might buy could bring meaning into their lives. Instead, they were preoccupied with what else they could do with their money. For instance, people considered donating the money to charity or setting it aside for their children’s education fund. In other words, spending money may not have seemed like a meaningful exercise, so they focused on the money they could save by buying the cheaper option.

I study savings with a focus on strategies that benefit consumer well-being. I am all for people making wise and strategic financial choices. But cheap products can create many other problems. Inexpensive options often do not last as long as the higher-end ones. As a result, we shop more often, which is ultimately worse for our wallets. Plus, that spending pattern can take a greater toll on the environment. Thanks in part to fast fashion, people buy 60 percent more clothing today than they did 15 years ago. The fashion industry alone emits more global carbon emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Meanwhile, mass-produced “fast furniture” is coming under scrutiny, in part for stuffing landfills. And anyone who has bought electronics or appliances in the past decade knows that low durability and rapid disposal are a common trade-off with cheaper goods.

In addition, by buying cheaper products, meaning-oriented people may be missing out on the opportunity to use spending as a tool to create meaning.To unpack this idea, think about the Mastercard Priceless campaign. In these advertisements, Mastercard shows a series of purchases that all lead up to a final “priceless” moment. It’s a gimmick, yes, but it captures something real. Mastercard is not trying to convince you that buying things is a meaningful endeavor. Instead, they are communicating how your purchases can help build meaningful moments.

Cultural and societal attitudes may help explain why some people hesitate to link meaning and spending. For instance, in the countries we have studied, people are inundated by advertisements that promise certain objects or services will deliver infinitely more than they actually can: creams that keep you young, and cars that project a life of luxury. As a result, people may develop a reactive skepticism that makes them resistant to the possibility that spending money can help achieve a sense of meaning. To quote Oscar Wilde, a cynic is someone “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Fortunately, there are ways for us to overcome our attraction to cheap options. We have found that reminding people to focus on the current purchase, rather than what else they can buy, helps reorient meaning-seekers to the benefits of what they are spending on.

For example, when we asked people if they wanted to buy either a basic photo album or a premium handmade one, people who prioritized meaning once again preferred the cheaper version. However, when we also asked meaning-seekers to consider the merits and drawbacks of each option, they preferred the premium, handmade album, which could keep their memories safe in a beautiful, long-lasting way. In a similar vein, telling people that higher-end products are often more durable encouraged meaning-seekers to select premium products over cheaper counterparts. The prompt reminded them that more expensive products, services and experiences could deliver more benefits over time than less expensive ones.

So before you dive into today’s Black Friday deals and holiday shopping, try not to fixate only on what you are spending or saving—think carefully about what you are buying, too.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at [email protected].

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