Professors Vladas Griskevicius, the Carlson Foundation Endowed Chair, and Deborah Roedder John, the Curtis L. Carlson Chair in Marketing, along with Professor Yajin Wang, a former Carlson School PhD student now at the University of Maryland, explored how owning luxury products can affect people’s both psychology and behavior in their forthcoming paper, “Does the devil wear Prada? Luxury product experiences can affect prosocial behavior,” forthcoming in the International Journal of Research in Marketing. The term prosocial refers to the intent to benefit others.
The researchers found that, after using a luxury product, women exhibited more selfish behaviors, such as sharing fewer resources with others and contributing less money to charity than those who used a non-luxury handbag. The pattern was reversed, however, when luxury users were able to perform generous behavior in front of other people.
“Introducing luxury products into our lives has consequences,” says John, recently named a fellow by the Society of Consumer Psychology.
Luxury goods are in the hands of more consumers than ever, the researchers noted, with sales of those goods topping $1.2 trillion Euro globally over the past decade. With online marketplaces, less affluent people—particularly those in younger generations - are able to buy and use these items more easily than before. Past research has demonstrated consumers are motivated to acquire luxury goods for several reasons, including boosting one’s self-esteem, happiness, feelings of power, communicating one’s sense of self, and satisfying one’s indulgent and aesthetic needs.
To study how people’s behavior changes, Griskevicius, John, and Wang gave a group of women a luxury brand scarf or bag, such as Prada or Louis Vuitton, and asked them to walk around with it. When they returned, the women were asked a series of questions such as whether they could “comfort someone after they experience hardship” or “help a stranger find something they lost.” The results showed less willingness to help others and less concern for others, even when money is not an issue.
In a second study, participants were asked to imagine themselves donating money to a charity, both privately and publicly.
“In this case, the results were reversed,” says Griskevicius. “Luxury users exhibited more generous behavior, but only when being more generous presents an opportunity to enhance one's reputation in front of other people. All in all, regardless of whether luxury users are more selfish or more generous, their behavior is ultimately driven by self-interest rather than concern for others.”
Taken together, this research contributes important elements to understanding social class, social status, and prosocial behavior from certain segments of the population.
“By examining different contexts for this behavior, we are able to provide a more nuanced look at the relationship between social status and prosocial behavior,” says John. “We were able to show that higher social status can be associated with more and less prosocial behavior depending on the circumstances, and show that the common thread to both effects is self-enhancement.”