Buying A Dream: The Psychology of Luxury
As Founder of ‘The Psychology of Fashion‘, Anabel Maldonado has set her sights on understanding why we covet what we do. A fashion journalist and psychologist, here she explores the relationship between personality and purchase – and where sustainability fits in.
While externally, the luxury landscape has thankfully changed in many positive ways, the internal reason why people buy luxury goods remains the same. There is really only one central reason why people buy luxury goods: to self-actualise. All other reported reasons are just by-products of self-actualisation. But what is self-actualisation? Notable psychologist Abraham Maslow explicitly defines it to be “the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” In other words, to be more of your ‘best self’.
It’s why we normally refer to luxury products and experiences as “aspirational”. We aspire to have it, because we aspire to be a more evolved version of who we are today – and a tangible reminder helps us get there. Luxury goods essentially help us self-actualise in two ways: through promoting emotional self-protection, and fostering our true identities.
The biggest misconception about why we buy luxury goods is the reason of having things to show-off status to others. Luxury purchases are emotional. We buy them because we are the ones who will look at them every day. They provide us with a feedback loop. Every time we catch that shiny gold logo gleaming back at us, it reinforces our own positive self-beliefs: we are successful. We are someone of worth. It reminds us of who we are and who we are working to become. Even if we are to take the socially motivated explanation as to why we buy luxury, there is a reason why we chose a particular brand: Louis Vuitton over Chanel, or an Aston Martin over a Maserati. As philosopher Alain de Botton has said, “Good materialism is when you located objects that seem to capture your identity at its best and finest point.” Design, brand and nuance matter: some convey a more conservative quality over a bolder and more extraverted choice.
Science backs this up. Research into why we buy luxury has identified personality factors, such as being extraverted1, but also an association with “feeling like a winner”2.
And then there’s the most powerful reason to buy into luxury: the emotionally protective factors. If fashion is armour, a luxury handbag, especially, is a shield. Through a series of studies, researchers at London Business School and Cornell University came to the conclusion that we consume not only to create an impressive exterior (they also find this explanation way too simplistic), but also to alleviate interior psychological pain. Individuals whose self-worth was harmed sought affirmation in high-status goods.3
It’s makes sense that something of actual worth will provide a boost in feelings of self-worth in yourself. They’re a tangible representation of it – a touchstone to look to. Note that self-worth is different than self-esteem. It is possible to feel “high self-esteem,” or in other words, to think you’re good at something, yet still not feel convinced that you are loveable and worthy. Self-esteem doesn’t last or “work” without self-worth. Unsurprisingly, studies have also shown that individuals buy into luxury to compensate for the experience of low financial status1, consistent with the idea that those who didn’t grow up with tangible reminders of worth, seek it more.
But what about self-development and spirituality? In a world where we’re taught that self-worth can only come from within, and that consumerism and capitalism are generally thought to be “bad”, are we able to accept and grow awareness around bona fide retail therapy? Is there a way to acknowledge that maybe yes there is a genuine need for luxury and beauty in our lives to propel our potential?
Perhaps this is where sustainability and craftsmanship fit in. The feeling of buying luxury can only be truly luxurious if we feel good about the product we are buying – and this confidence will show on the outside. Esteemed fashion designer and former creative director of Lanvin Alber Elbaz once told the Financial Times that nothing makes him happier than when “a friend calls me and says, ‘Alber, I am wearing your dress to divorce court because it gives me the strength to face my ex and his lawyers’.” At a time when we grapple with over-consumption, and often, mindless materialism, perhaps remembering this ‘good’ in luxury goods will help us bring things back to balance.
- University College London. “Personality drives purchasing of luxury goods.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 August 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170823121344.htm>.
- University of Cambridge. “Winner takes all: Success enhances taste for luxury goods, study suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 September 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170919123120.htm>.
- Journal of Experimental Social Psychology “Protecting the self through consumption: Status goods as affirmational commodities” Niro Sivanathan, Nathan C. Pettit http://faculty.london.edu/nsivanathan/pdf/Sivanathan%20%26%20Pettit%20(2010).pdf
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