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December 01, 2021

Envy the key to many buying decisions: Report

While people may be reluctant to admit it, "keeping up with the Joneses" remains a strong motivator when it comes to spending. And a key component of that desire is that old green-eyed monster, envy.

Cheap-cell-phones But a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that it’s the nature of your envy — whether it’s benign or malicious — that determines whether you'll pay a premium to keep up with the neighbours.

Researchers from Tilburg University in The Netherlands studied envy-triggered behaviour by asking subjects what they would do in certain social contexts. The researchers used the iPhone and competing BlackBerry smart phones in their tests.

So, for instance, the authors asked subjects to imagine that a peer had a phone that they coveted. The participants were then asked to imagine feeling envious and admiring of the fellow student (benign), envious and begrudging (malicious), or simply dying to get the product itself.

Those who were benignly envious of an iPhone owner were willing to pay, on average, about $110 more for one. But those who thought the iPhone owner of whom they were envious was somehow undeserving were willing to pay more for a BlackBerry, evoking  a desire to "pull down" the other person.

If someone you've deemed subordinate to you suddenly gets something you want, you wish to prove your superiority by degrading their new possession. To do that, you'll pay a premium for a competitive but slightly different item, the researchers conclude. 

Maliciously envious people feel frustrated and try to level the difference with the superior others by pulling those others down. Benignly envious people, on the other hand, also feel frustrated, but they try to level the difference by moving themselves up.

Do you think envy is at the heart of many buying decisions? Do marketers take advantage of us here or do we do it all to ourselves?

By Gordon Powers, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...