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If a rough day at the office drives you into the arms of the closest sample sale, you’re hardly alone. People often shop in response to stressful situations, according to a study in the December 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. This isn’t surprising, of course: Tammy Faye Bakker famously said that shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist. But Soo Kim and Derek D. Rucker, the Northwestern University researchers who authored the paper, found that consumers use products not only to reactively cope with attacks on their self-image but also to proactively protect themselves against potential challenges.

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Much like emotional eating or boozing, shopping is a coping mechanism. According to Kim and Rucker, consumers tend to increase their overall consumption in order to distract themselves from self-doubt. More interesting, the researchers found that consumers also shop preemptively to ward off anticipated threats to their egos.

These efforts to compensate for our perceived inadequacies are fleeting, the authors warn.

“Prior to receiving any negative feedback, consumers select products that are specifically associated with bolstering or guarding the part of the self that might come under threat,” they write. “After receiving negative feedback, consumers seem to increase their consumption more generally as consumption may serve as a means to distract them from the negative feedback.”

Someone attending a high-school reunion may shell out for expensive jewelry as a symbol of success, for instance. Another might splurge on a designer suit before an important meeting to appear more savvy. But these efforts to compensate for our perceived inadequacies are fleeting, the authors warn. Spending money may soothe any momentary anxiety but it’s only a temporary balm. Unless the source of stress is addressed, the only outcomes of retail therapy are mounting credit-card bills and an emptiness no amount of stuff can ever fill.

+ Press Release

+ Journal of Consumer Research