As some of you may know, my background lies in Psychology, specifically social cognition, which is the study of how we process information to make sense of the world. Today’s post is going to be a quick intro to one specific area of social cognition that had a huge positive influence on the way I shop: heuristics.
Heuristics are what psychologists call all those little (mostly subconscious) mental shortcuts we use to make decisions in our everyday life. Most of the time heuristics work well and save us valuable mental capacity that we can then use for other things. The trouble is when we rely on heuristics for decisions that really deserve a little more deliberation time, like choosing which pieces to buy and add to our wardrobe, and that's the point when they can easily turn into fallacies.
In this post I’ll cover the four most common shopping fallacies, the psychological principles behind them and what you can do to avoid them. For more advice on how to improve your shopping process, click here or here.
EXPENSIVE = HIGH QUALITY
Let’s start with perhaps the number one shopping fallacy: A higher price equals a higher quality. From airfares (economy vs business class) to theater tickets (orchestra vs balcony) to dinner options (Burger King vs haute cuisine): The notion of ‘You get what you pay for’ is deeply engrained into our understanding of how the economy works. Now of course, in most cases, the price/quality connection is perfectly reasonable: You pay more for a night in a three star hotel than a budget hostel but in return you get your own room with a comfy bed, a private bathroom and room service. But sometimes, and especially when it comes to shopping for new wardrobe additions, that shortcut can also turn into a fallacy for two reasons:
1. The relationship between the price of an item and its quality is not 100% linear
Sure, in an ideal world every manufacturer would use the extra money they get from higher retail prices to produce a higher quality product. But the reality is of course that, especially at high (luxury) price segments, only a portion of it goes into the manufacturing process and the rest into things like marketing campaigns, PR and salaries for high-profile employees.
2. Quality means something different to every person
The quality of a garment mostly depends on objective criteria like the quality of the fabric, how the seams were finished and the tailoring, but there’s also an individual/subjective component to quality and that includes things like how well the garment fits your shape and your personal preference for that particular material. And that means it is totally possible that a lower-priced item fulfils your individual quality criteria better than a higher-priced item.
If your goal is to build a high-quality wardrobe I say put in the work and study up on garment quality, so you can compare the quality of possible new wardrobe additions yourself, without having to rely on price as an indicator. I wrote a whole series about garment quality a couple of months ago. Check it out here.
"I’ll buy anything with Alexa Chung’s face on it!"
We all know that the celebrity or model advertising the product had nothing to do with its manufacturing, yet celebrity endorsements are still one of the biggest drivers of sales in the fashion and beauty industry. A related phenomenon: People are a lot more likely to buy when they like the sales assistant that consulted them. In both cases another person influenced our purchasing decision, because our subconscious couldn’t distinguish between the positive qualities we associate with the celebrity/model or the sales assistant and those of the product.
We are especially likely to succumb to the power of social proof under two conditions:
1. Uncertainty: When we ourselves know little about the product we are looking to buy.
2. Similarity: When the person endorsing the product is similar to us, no matter how trivial that similarity is (hair colour for example).
If you know you are susceptible to social proof, train yourself to mentally separate the item in question from the model or the person that is trying to sell it to you. Imagine an unfriendly sales assistant had shown it to you and the ad was super boring and didn’t feature an attractive model or somebody whose style you admire. Would you still want to buy it?
"I'm all about getting a good deal."
In the past six months have you
- … put another 10$ piece in your shopping basket just to get free shipping (which would have been 5$)?
- … tried to "make the most out of the sale season" and snap up as many good deals as possible?
- … lowered your standards during the sales?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you seem to respond well to a family of sales strategies that all are based on the psychological concept of scarcity. Scarcity is the phenomenon that things seem more desirable when they are hard to come by, available in limited quantities or only for a short amount of time (like lower-priced collections during the sales season).
Two conditions that have been found to further increase the effect scarcity has on us are a) when items that were previously available in unrestricted quantities suddenly become restricted and b) when we have to compete with others to get them. During the sales season, both conditions are present, which explains why so many people go into hunter-gatherer mode during sales time and reasonable decision making goes out of the window.
Accept that making sensible purchasing decisions when faced with crazy reductions and time constraints is something only very few can accomplish and only shop the sales with a pre-defined shopping list of things you know you need from now on.
"If I paid for it, I'm wearing it!"
Sunk costs are costs that we have already paid and can’t get back, i.e. money spent on anything that isn’t returnable. Because we as humans are very loss averse and far more motivated by the possibility of losing things than the possibility of gaining things, sunk costs are pretty much the worst for us. That’s why we have developed a very specific (irrational) behavioural response to deal with them, which may not actually seem all that irrational to you at first, simply because it's so common.
Here's an example: Let’s say you bought tickets to see a movie but then within the first ten minutes of the movie you realise this isn’t your cup of tea at all and you hate it. The rational response here would be to leave the cinema and do something more fun with your time. The common response? To sit through the entire two hours of the movie because, after all, you paid for the tickets.
That exact same response is something I see a lot on beauty blogs. People will talk about a product that they hate, but then they’ll add “of course I’ll use up the bottle”. The fashion equivalent here would be if you bought a garment that for whatever reason you can’t return and then force yourself to wear it or, even worse, buy something else to pair it with, i.e. throw even more money on top of the already lost amount.
Of course, the main motivation behind wearing or using up something even if we don’t like it is that we don’t want to be wasteful. But that’s exactly where the fallacy lies: The money is already spent/lost, so there is nothing left to waste, except for your time, energy and closet space. And: Just because you don't like the product/item doesn't mean somebody else won't love it. So find a new owner for it and then move on.