Why the Devil Wears Prada

Study Finds Luxury Handbag Wearers Likely to Behave Selfishly

Jun 17, 2020
Marketing

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  It turns out, your choice of handbag might influence more than your overall look. It might be affecting your social behavior, according to new research.

Although prior research has studied motivations behind purchasing luxury goods, little research has examined the actual societal effects of people using these luxury products. Maryland Smith’s Yajin Wang sought to change that, in a series of research that explores how luxury consumption dictates social behavior.

Her latest research, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, finds that women using a luxury product tend to exhibit more selfish behavior, such as sharing fewer resources, than women using a similar, non branded product.

In a series of field studies, Wang and co-authors Deborah Roedder John and Vladas Griskevicious, both from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, provided women with a Prada handbag to use. They then presented the women with opportunities to exhibit prosocial behavior, such as donating money to charity.

Women who had carried the luxury handbags for a short time gave less when donating money in private but gave more when donating money in front of other people.

“This research demonstrates that luxury consumption has a negative impact beyond the luxury user alone,” say the authors. “Our work shows that luxury consumption can also have negative consequences for the well-being of others because the lower levels of prosocial behavior triggered by luxury usage in our studies have negative effects for others. Such behaviors, which can be viewed as the societal costs of luxury consumption, are not only unexpected but are also unwelcome consequences of luxury usage.”

What’s more, says Wang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, the research finds that luxury products tend to boost an individual’s sense of their own social status, but only if the luxury product is perceived as rare and exclusive and is used in front of other people.

“We uncover conditions under which luxury products boost people’s sense of status, which then alters their prosocial behavior,” the authors say. “In doing so, we help reconcile previous opposing findings regarding the effect of social status on prosocial behavior. Whereas luxury consumption generally promotes less prosocial tendencies, it leads to more prosocial behavior when such acts can enhance a person’s reputation.

So does the devil wear Prada? While this phrase implies that only wicked people wear and use luxury brands, these findings suggest something else: wearing and using Prada can lead ordinary people to behave badly.

“We repeatedly found that women wearing luxury products behaved less prosocially, including by sharing less money with others and donating less money to charity when no one was around to see it,” say the authors. “Taken together, these findings provide novel evidence that using luxury goods affects how people feel and behave.”

Read more: "Does the devil wear Prada? Luxury product experiences can affect prosocial behavior" is published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing.

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About the Expert(s)

Professor Wang received her Ph.D. in Marketing from the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota in 2015. Her research focuses on luxury brands and conspicuous consumption, and social/ interpersonal influence on consumer's behavior. Her research has been published in Journal of Consumer Research and Psychological Science, and has been covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, BBC News, FOX News, and CNN. She teaches consumer behavior in the undergraduate program.

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