Does Preemptive Retail Therapy Work?

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Who hasn’t sought out retail therapy after suffering a blow to the ego or a particularly bad week at work?

Now new research from Northwestern University suggests that we also use retail therapy to cast a protective spell before a potentially stressful or challenging event, buying something to shore up the part of us that feels threatened.

Dreading a visit from wealthy, judgmental relatives? You might splurge on a fancy set of towels or throw pillows. Gearing up for a big meeting with your boss? You might indulge in a sleek new suit.

But does this protective buying actually work? Perhaps, in the short run, says Derek D. Rucker, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business and co-author of the study—at least in the sense it can make you feel more confident.

In their research, Rucker and his co-author Soo Kim found that what we buy to bolster ourselves against an upcoming threat—typically, products we feel will help prepare us—differs from what we consume after a painful or stressful event, which usually falls into the category of self-comfort or distraction.

The problem with preemptive buying, Rucker says, “is that we don’t know how long the improvement lasts. And buying can escalate into a vicious cycle, where you continue to consume because it’s the only thing that pushes away the feeling of threat.”

So over the long run, buying for a psychological boost probably isn’t good for your wallet or your well-being. “The vulnerability that prompted the buying remains unresolved,” says Joe Lowrance, Psy.D., an Atlanta-based psychologist. “And unless people take the time and make the effort to work through those issues, they remain unresolved.”

When momentary feelings of insecurity bubble up, there’s no harm in trying to consume them into submission—occasionally. Buy a suit that makes you strut for that work presentation or home accessories that give you an affluent feeling. Just be clear about what you’re doing, and why.

And be prepared to deal with the underlying feelings once the high wears off.

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