Personal relative deprivation and status consumption

Could the way that consumers view those around them affect their spending habits? A new research project led by Dr Mitch Callan will explore the links between a sense of resentment and the consumption of status goods.

Status consumption involves acquiring goods, not for their inherent value, but to signal social status. Our Leverhulme Trust-funded research will extend current insights into the psychological basis of status consumption by examining whether it is motivated, in part, by personal relative deprivation.

Personal relative deprivation refers to resentment stemming from the belief that one is deprived of a deserved outcome compared to some referent (e.g, what similar others might have). For example, learning that a work colleague has similar outputs but a higher income than you can create feelings of resentment and a sense of unfairness, even though you might not be ‘objectively’ deprived in terms of your absolute income. Because of this resentment and perceived unfairness, people often engage in compensatory behaviours to achieve the outcomes they feel they deserve, for example through self-improvement or even gambling.

We will examine status consumption as one such compensatory behaviour. That is, we will investigate whether—and how—resentment arising from unfavourable social comparisons of financial or material outcomes motivates some people to acquire possessions that confer status.

In our three-year project, we will investigate three important, but under-researched aspects of the link between personal relative deprivation and status consumption: (a) the comparative processes and real-world situations that minimise and maximise personal relative deprivation; (b) the psychological processes that give rise to status consumption; and (c) overt spending behaviours in the laboratory and in the field.

Besides its importance to theoretical issues in both consumer behaviour and social judgement, our research may help to contribute to the development of strategies that enable consumers to make informed and sustainable financial decisions. For example, our findings may assist organisations concerned with helping people manage debt to improve the money management resources they develop for use by the public. Such resources could highlight how people’s perceptions of their social standing may be influencing their spending behaviour, such as how a person might have engaged in superfluous spending after experiencing resentment towards a friend or colleague. To our knowledge, these ideas have not been formally incorporated into advice and learning resources developed to help people deal with debt. Our research should offer an evidence-based foundation for such consumer advisement and education.

Dr Mitch Callan
University of Essex