Why do people buy things they don’t need?

An astrology book. A game console. A carpet made of sheep’s wool. Fine beaver bed linen. A user the platform Gutefrage.net wanted to know: “What were your biggest bad buys?” One can vividly imagine the anticipation of the people answering the purchase – and the disappointment a little later. But there was no time or desire to gamble. The bedding was kind of scratchy. The castors of the desk chair kept getting caught on the sheep’s wool carpet – how annoying!


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A bad buy defines the Duden as a “purchase whose object disappoints the expectations of the buyer” and which is unnecessary. Consumer psychologist Georg Felser knows that it is very human that we make bad purchases from time to time. “People are not good at correctly predicting how they will feel when something specific is the case,” says the business psychology professor at Harz University. That means: people usually drastically overestimate how much joy the new shirt brings and how long the feeling of happiness lasts after the purchase.

Buy to feel good

However, buying can be used to quickly regulate one’s own mood – and to ensure that it remains positive. “If a stage went well, we buy to reward ourselves. And if it went badly, we buy to compensate for the frustration,” the consumer psychologist gives an example and laughs. This leads to the conclusion that people in very different states of mind are prone to making bad purchases. If you are in a good mood and relaxed, you do not examine your environment so closely. If you are in a bad mood, you are a bit more critical, but you also want to get rid of the unpleasant feelings quickly. Filling the digital or analogue shopping basket can help. However, this does not apply equally to every person.

“Rewards are somewhat interchangeable, but they also vary from person to person. For some, the thought of their own Harley Davidson feels rewarding, for others going to the flea market,” says expert Felser. This explains why some people keep dragging similar bad buys home. If you like to read – or would like to be a person who reads – you will find just buying a book rewarding. How much fun flipping through the pages will be! If there is little time left in everyday life, the novel will soon be covered with a layer of dust.

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Shopping and social position

A cultural studies perspective is helpful to explain the phenomenon of bad buys, says Ingo Hamm. “We are no longer Stone Age people running around with clubs. We live in complex societies that function through the division of labour,” explains the professor of business psychology at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. Consumption no longer primarily has the function of satisfying “the simplest urges” such as hunger. “Consumption is also about our social position,” says Hamm.

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The well-known truism “Clothes make the man” helps to understand this approach. The choice of things and services that a person can buy is gigantic these days. What someone chooses always has something to do with how he or she perceives themselves and others. According to Hamm, some people only buy expensive clothes or high-priced jewelery to show that they can afford it.

What self-esteem has to do with bad buys

Among them are above all people whose self-esteem is low and the need for recognition is correspondingly high. Studies have shown that, explains Hamm. From a psychological point of view, buying expensive things to stabilize self-esteem is unfavorable behavior – because the positive effect is only noticeable in the short term. The impression quickly arises that things are not enough and that something new is needed.

And what happens to the old, bad buy? He disappears in a drawer, never to be seen again. One could now get really annoyed about this aberration in taste or the money spent. To prevent this from happening, the brain has developed a tactic: dissonance reduction. “We avoid inner tensions by – to put it bluntly – talking things up or by ignoring them,” says the expert.

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“Consumption is not only negative”

I’ll definitely drink from the kitschy coffee cup. How good that I have a third USB cable as a spare. Well, who do these thoughts sound familiar to? “You can almost count yourself lucky if you can summon up the cognitive energy and realize that this purchase was rubbish,” says business psychologist Hamm. Whitewashing and hiding is easier than admitting an economic mistake and straightening it out – i.e. bringing the product back to the store or selling it online.

Nevertheless, consumption is not only negative. Because it should not be forgotten what purchasable products and services enable us to do. “The division of labor has made us insanely progressive as a society. It allows us to live a very complex life,” says Hamm. To put it more simply, if you can buy your food in the supermarket and don’t have to grow it yourself, you have more time – for example to create art or to develop a vaccine against the corona virus.

What makes bad purchases more likely?

In everyday life, people often carry things home in shopping bags that they neither need nor like. But if a few conditions are met, the probability of a bad buy increases, says neuromarketing expert Hans-Georg Häusel. On the one hand, the purchase must be a pleasure product. These include fashion, decoration or sweets. If the store smells of cake and there is a biscuit ready to try, customers are more willing to buy a whole pack – even if they didn’t originally intend to do so. “If something can be experienced with all senses, the emotional effect is much higher,” explains psychologist Häusel.

If discount campaigns then catch your eye, the goods appear even more attractive. This can be further increased if the discount is only valid for a limited period of time, such as on Black Friday. “It’s about the principle of scarcity,” says the expert. If something is supposedly only available in small quantities or for a short time, you want to secure it quickly before someone else snags the product.

Anyone who feels generally immune to such impulsive actions must disappoint Häusel: “We humans always believe that we are controlled by the mind and that it also controls our emotions. This is of course a mistake.” The reward center in the brain is usually much better at asserting itself than the parts of the brain responsible for reason. This process used to make sense, says the neuromarketing expert: “When a prehistoric man marched through the forest and saw deer hunting, it was good not to think twice about whether he still had a deer at home.”

How do you prevent bad purchases?

But these days, many people’s pantries and wardrobes are more likely to be too full than too empty. So how do you prevent bad purchases? Häusel suggests time to think about it. “Now I think the blouse is really, really great. But I don’t buy them right away, I just walk around the block again or even sleep on it.” It’s also helpful not to put yourself in a tempting situation or to define clear goals in the first place – the shopping list says hello. If you pay in cash, you also get a very physical feeling of how the money is getting less.

Finally, Häusel has two pieces of good news. To a certain extent, people are capable of learning when it comes to consumer behavior. Anyone who tends to make impulse purchases should – as a kind of training – stroll through the city center more often and not buy anything. And: The older we get, the fewer bad buys end up in our closets. “Older consumers tend to be the more sensible consumers.”

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