How reflecting on our possessions can curb impulse buying psychology today gas in back

Take the case of shoes. American men own an average of 11 pairs and American women own 13 pairs. Their shoe collection equates to two and a half weeks of income for the average American. Yet, people use only about three pairs regularly and own several shoes they have never worn.

The twentieth-century aphorism, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” seems laughably quaint and naïve in the light of such excessive shopping activity. We hardly use up or wear our any of our belongings, and instead of making do or doing without, we keep buying new ones.

Can we turn this ship around, so to speak? In this post, I want to write about an interesting finding from a research paper that I coauthored with two Rice University doctoral students, Jihye Jung and Nivriti Chowdhri which suggests one promising method. In the research, we studied the usefulness of a visualization we call “reflection” to reduce people’s shopping urges. It can be used “just in time” – right when an urge to buy something is experienced.

Reflection is about thinking deeply and remembering in detail how you used any one of your possessions recently. In our research, we’ve found it helps if the reflected-upon possession is something functional, like a kitchen implement, a lawn-mower or a wristwatch. Here’s the instruction from one of our studies which included 165 participants:

Step 3: Now we want you to describe how you used the product on the most recent occasion. In the space provided below, explain WHEN, WHERE, HOW, and HOW LONG you used this product. Please describe your experience with the product in as much detail as possible, and please spend at least TWO MINUTES on this task.”

• “I have a pair of light Nike running shoes I used this morning. I bought them about a year ago for about $80. The reason I bought them was because my brother has a same pair which I tried on and really liked so I bought my own. I used them this morning to go for a run. I went for a run around the neighborhood for half an hour. I really like these shoes because they’re really light and they breathe easy. I use them to go on runs. Sometimes I use them at work since I do a lot of walking and they are so comfortable.” (25-year-old male).

• “I just purchased a Kindle Fire. It is black. I can read books and access the internet. It opens a world of novelty to me. I read a book in bed and checked the weather this morning before even getting up. I spent about 45 mins. I also downloaded several apps. I was laying down and the ease of Kindle use allowed me to comfortably read without noise to wake up my partner.” (29-year-old female).

The study had two other conditions. One was a control condition in which participants didn’t do anything. In the other condition, they formed a plan to use a possession they hadn’t recently used, which is a common situation many of us face because we have so many things we haven’t used recently.

After this experimental manipulation, study participants were given a series of five products. These were a cashmere sweater, a stainless steel watch, a coffee maker, a chair, and a box of Godiva chocolates. For each item, participants indicated how much they were willing to pay (WTP) for it. We calculated a WTP index for each participant, by standardizing each item’s WTP and then adding the values.