Why Retail Therapy Won't Help Us Overcome Setbacks At Work

Setbacks are an inevitable part of working life, and they can provide quite a blow to our self-esteem and sense of self. How we respond to negative events in life is, therefore, crucial not only to our ongoing success, but also to our emotional wellbeing.

When we experience a setback or a blow to our self-esteem, we can often respond by buying something or other that reinforces the positive image we have of ourselves. This retail therapy is a well used method for picking ourselves up after a negative event. However, a recent study suggests that we could actually be doing ourselves more harm than good by using the credit card to help us to bounce back.

"When consumers experience a psychological threat to how they would like to see themselves, buying products that signal accomplishment in the same area of their life could ironically cause them to dwell on their shortcomings. This can strip consumers of their mental resources and impair their self-control," the authors reveal in their paper, which was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

How we use retail therapy at work

For instance, you might be a highly ambitious individual who regards career progression as a mark of who you are as a person, yet when the time comes for that long-expected promotion, you’re passed over for a (no doubt undeserving) colleague.  You might choose to respond to this blow to your image as a go getter by splashing the cash on some designer clothes or some other luxury items that showcase just how successful you really are.

Alternatively, you might be someone who prides themselves on being a success, whether in the classroom or the workplace, yet when you graduate your inbox is full of tumbleweed rather than job offers. You might react by buying an expensive Rolex or something to help you create an appearance of someone that’s wildly successful.

I’m sure we can relate to these examples, but does retail therapy actually work? Does it make us feel any better than before we got our credit cards out?

Participants in the study were asked to remember a time when they were made to feel stupid, before then purchasing a high brow journal in a bid to reinforce their intelligence. They reported that buying the magazine had not delivered the desired impact. Rather than making them feel better, it instead prompted them to focus on the shortcomings highlighted by the earlier setback.

Consumption can sometimes compensate for our blunders and failures, but this doesn’t always work. Consumers who use products to boost their sense of self-worth tend to dwell on their shortcomings and their ability to exert self-control is impaired. After experiencing a setback in one area of their life, consumers might be better off boosting their sense of self in a different area of their life. For example, a consumer whose intelligence is undermined might be better off signaling their self-worth socially rather than trying to assert their intelligence," the researchers conclude.

So the next time you experience bad news or a setback at work, maybe think twice before you try and buy yourself a self-esteem boost. It may actually do more harm than good.

Perils of Compensatory Consumption: Within-Domain Compensation Undermines Subsequent Self-Regulation