We live in a world where it’s so easy to share aspects of our lives and experiences through digital devices and see what other people are up to. The ubiquity of social media, particularly social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram, may make us feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses. Now more than ever, we are being tempted to spend to display our wealth and status. The American sociologist Thorstein Veblen defines conspicuous consumption as the purchase of unnecessary and expensive goods in order to show off wealth1.
There are three possible explanations for this.
1. The feel-good factor
One is that sharing on social media – including photos of our latest gadgets, cars and holidays – simply makes us feel good. Research shows that when people share on social media, they often filter out negative information to present a positive view of themselves to others2. And the positive responses that they get can bolster their self-esteem3.
2. The self-promotion angle
Another potential explanation is that social media use evokes emotions such as narcissism and envy, which may lead people to spend in order to show off. A study found that increased use of Facebook heightens peoples’ desire to promote themselves and their likelihood of engaging in conspicuous consumption4.
3. The unconscious instinct theory
Finally, evolutionary psychology may also help throw light on this issue. For evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, conspicuous consumption is an enjoyable process that we use to signal our fitness to others. He attributes much of the pleasure we get from products to our unconscious instinct to display not just wealth and status, but also intelligence and traits such as openness and agreeableness5.
Sharing on social media is not unhealthy in itself. It has in fact a number of benefits. For example, it enables us to keep in touch with family and friends and to easily share information with them. It can also help us build communities where we can interact with people who share our interests or are a source of support for us.
But positive reactions to our posts – the likes, comments and shares – may make us feel so overwhelmingly good about ourselves that it can weaken our self-control and cause us to make irrational decisions6. We might end up buying things on an impulse to keep up our projected images on social media, pushing us to spend beyond our means.
Being constantly bombarded with highly curated images also exposes us to products, including those promoted by people we look up to in our networks. This may make us more susceptible to indulgent choices in our consumption.
Making rational choices
Using social media can help us meet our basic needs of acceptance and belonging, but we must be mindful of any influences it might have on our spending.
Perhaps limiting the time we spend on networking sites may help - it might even allow us to connect more with people in real life and track towards our goals for our future.
Looking for help?
It is possible to maintain control. Setting goals and a budget may help us make more rational choices in our spending and work towards securing our financial future.
1 Veblen, T. (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: The Macmillan Company, Chapter IV: Conspicuous Consumption
2 Wilcox, K., Kramer, T. & Sen, S. (2011). ‘Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control, Journal of Consumer Research, pg. 91, para 4
3,6 Thoumrungroje A. (2014). The Influence of Social Media Intensity and EWOM on Conspicuous Consumption, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, pg.12.
4 Taylor, D. G. & Strutton D. (2016). ‘Does Facebook usage lead to conspicuous consumption?: The role of envy, narcissism and self-promotion’, Journal of Research in Interactive Marketing.
5 Miller, G. (2009), Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York: Viking.
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