Those who love to shop are often painted as lonely souls, trying to fill a void by buying and becoming even more isolated in the process.
Not always so, according to new Dutch research. The relationship of shopping and loneliness can go both ways and the direction seems to have a lot to do with why you shop, according to researcher Rik Pieters, a professor of marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
Shoppers who could be described as "happy hedonists" may become less lonely, he found.
"It is not a good idea to shop to become happy or to own more than others, but shopping for the fun of shopping might actually be not a bad idea after all," he said.
Pieters collected data from more than 2 500 Dutch consumers for six years, interviewing them to evaluate their levels of loneliness and materialism. He obtained information on why they shopped and then studied how everything interacted.
Loneliness can foster materialism, he found, but materialism of the right type can reduce loneliness.
"Overall, materialism led to a small, but significant, increase in loneliness over time," he said. But he found the type of materialism was important in the effect on loneliness.
People who bought things to raise their social status as in "You have more blue jeans than I do, but my house has more square feet,'' tended to get more lonely. Those who used stuff as medicine or panaceas e.g. "When I finally own my own 1 200cc motorbike, I will enjoy life and be truly happy" got even more lonely than the one-uppers, he explained.
However, those who bought for sheer enjoyment as part of a ''lifestyle of happy hedonism'' did best. "It turns out this latter type of materialism actually reduces loneliness, most likely because the enjoyment spreads to other people," Pieters said. "There is no bragging, comparison, or envy involved."
Of course, people may switch back and forth between types of materialism, he said.
The study was published online July 11 in the Journal of Consumer Research and will appear in the December print issue.
Why people buy
Focusing on why people buy is valuable, according to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, who reviewed the findings.
"Part of the misunderstanding we have about this subject has to do with the lack of a consistent definition of 'materialism'," she said. "One researcher might be talking about someone that lavishly overspends and is overly devoted to shopping, another might be referring to any sort of appreciation for material goods."
Materialism is on a continuum, she said. And, as Pieters' study shows, motivations differ.
"I think there is a tendency to want to demonise shopping and the appreciation of products in our lives," Yarrow said. "In fact, shopping and products have been part of human life since caveman days. They can be a great source of connection and pleasure, and they can also be misused."
The subgroups described by Pieters rang true with Meg Meloy, an associate professor of marketing at Penn State University, especially the one-uppers. "It's well known that if we constantly compare ourselves to other people, we will always come up lacking," she said.
In her own research, she found that people need an outlet when they are hungry, stressed or busy.
"Talking to someone is one way," Meloy said. Vigorous exercise is another. But for others, shopping is that outlet.
When she looked at what stressed shoppers bought, even those in a very bad mood didn't break the bank. Most were likely to buy accessories such as earrings or music, not big-ticket items, she said.
For other research on shopping, visit the American Psychological Association.