Have you ever gone shopping for one small thing and ended up seriously overspending? Maybe you got swept up in the excitement of finding the perfect gift (for yourself or someone else), but, if you find yourself in that situation a lot, you also might be lonely.
University of Iowa associate professor of marketing Jing “Alice” Wang studies the behaviors of lonely people and has found a link between isolation and impulsive buying.
People who are lonely are often worrying about being lonely, Wang said to the university. They’re fixating on the things that are missing from their lives, depleting their mental resources.
“Research has found resource depletion has many different effects on people, and one of them is impulsive buying,” she said. “Lonely people don’t mean to buy something, they just do, and this can lead to negative downstream emotions, like regret.”
So while the retail therapy might feel good in the moment, it might cause an already lonely person more negative feelings later. People who aren’t lonely and feel satisfied with the relationships in their lives show more self-control in this area. They’re less likely to spend impulsively and buy things they don’t need, Wang said.
Lonely shoppers are also more inclined to buy the thing most people don’t want. If a product is advertised as something eight out of 10 people want, Wang said, they won’t buy it to use in their home. They’ll buy the thing only two of 10 people want.
“Lonely people sense that they’re in the minority themselves because most people aren’t lonely, so if a product is endorsed by a minority, they can relate more with it,” she said.
However, if they’re buying something they’ll be using in public, they’re more likely to buy the thing most people want, she said. Lonely people also form meaningful bonds with the things they buy in ways that shoppers who aren’t lonely don’t.
Shoppers who aren’t lonely “tend to buy things either for the product functions or for public show,” Wang said. “They don’t typically form human-like relationships with it.”
Being lonely isn’t the same as being alone for a little while or enjoying time spent by yourself (I see you, introverts). According to Wang, loneliness is triggered by a “friendship deficit”—it’s the sadness felt by people who don’t feel satisfied with the number of relationships they have in their lives.
There’s no set number of friends you need to have in order to stave off loneliness; it’s all about how you feel about the relationships you have. If you have just one or two close friends, but you’re totally content with that, you’re not lonely, she said.
“Someone growing up in a big family with lots of kids might need a lot of relationships to be happy,” Wang said. “Others can be happy with just two or three friends. For some, a friend on the other side of the globe to talk with on the phone is enough.”
Despite the technology that connects us, people in the U.S. are more socially isolated now than they were two decades ago, Wang and her research team wrote in a research paper on shopping behaviors of lonely folks. If you’re struggling with loneliness, Wang suggests keeping an eye out for compulsive shopping tendencies and being mindful while spending money. If you’re about to buy something, pause to consider if it’s something you really need.
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Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.