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How well-armoured is your Ego?

July 9, 2010

We might have guessed it, but new research now confirms: we’re more likely to buy luxury goods when we feel insecure.

In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (May, 2010), Niro Sivanathan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, and Nathan Pettit, of Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, draw on psychological theory and research to show that when people feel that their egos are threatened, they are more inclined to buy high-status goods. If, however, they are presented with other means of alleviating their psychological pain, they are less likely to seek these kinds of products.

According to one of their studies, “there is a unique relationship between feeling threatened and the desire to purchase high-status goods. The mere act of purchasing such a good — even when it is not visible to others — seems to provide a sense of comfort.”

I decided to test this the other day. I bought a Rolex watch, a new Mercedes and an Armani suit. The science is right – I did feel a sense of comfort!

In some respects this research is quite straightforward. Not only are luxury goods an obvious armour for the ego, but also it is those on low incomes who will often be most tempted by them. The authors of the study are rightly concerned that luxury goods have a particular appeal to low income or indebted consumers – the very people who can least afford them.

Another part of the study investigated the effect on consumption of pausing to reflect on personal values. When would-be consumers had a chance to consider what was important to them, even after receiving a knock to their self-esteem, they were less likely to place high value on luxury goods.

What a powerful challenge: the more we reflect on our values – the message of the kingdom, the daily gifts we receieve from God, the needs of others – the more resistant we can become to the comforting alure of luxury goods. Now there’s an argument for regular time with God and the Scriptures!

There’s also a challenge here to our lifestyles. The closer we read Jesus’ instructions to his followers, the more we realise that he expected them to be able to face poverty, suffering and rejection. In Luke 6, having just appointed his disciples, Jesus says “blessed are you who are poor…who hunger now…when people hate you, when they exclude you…But woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort”. Jesus expected his followers at times to go without their “comfort” in order to connect with the blessings of the kingdom. The identity he promised obviously didn’t depend on a protected ego – and so he was able to call his disciples to take material risks.

That leaves me with two questions:

First, how much of my spending is “comfort consumption” to shore up my self-esteem?

But also, how great must the love of God be if Jesus is right and it can release us from the desire to comfort ourselves?

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