Exploring Childhood Influences on the Choice of Experiential Purchases

What if some consumers are forgoing optimal happiness by avoiding experiential purchases?

Time and time again, researchers find that spending money on experiences (e.g. vacations, movies, bowling, a play, etc.) leads to more long-term happiness than consuming material things. Yet, some consumers seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle of materialistic consumption (e.g. clothes, jewelry, furniture, cars, etc.) – leaving them only temporarily satisfied with their purchases and always wanting more. In our research, we explore how one’s childhood might shape the way a consumer evaluates possible experiences & why some may choose to forgo the  benefits of experiences.

Impact of Childhood Environment

We explore two main characteristics that shape one’s childhood environment: harshness & unpredictability. Those who experience parental abuse, insufficient food, scarce resources, inconsistent caregiving, etc. during their early years of life grow up learning their world is an uncertain place. As these children grow into independent adults, their childhood experiences continue to shape their view of the world –as outside of their control–even if financial stability is achieved in adulthood.

What’s this got to do with experiential consumption?

So, if a person is prone to seeing her life outcomes as uncontrollable, then experiences, which are often difficult to predict, may seem less desirable to pursue. Think about a road-trip to a new destination. A grand idea, but how many different outcomes could there be? What could go wrong? Just about everything, right? What we find is that people who grew up in unstable households find it more difficult to evaluate experiences, and as a result, they are less likely to spend their money on them.

Example: Linda’s vs. Karen’s Childhood

Affluent neighborhood
Happily married parents
Stable, loving, caring home environment
Needs always met
Dangerous neighborhood (the “hood”)
Separated or absent parents
Unstable household, inconsistent schedules
Sometimes went to bed hungry


So…who’s more likely to spend their money on a vacation experience?

What’s the big deal? Why does it matter that Karen may be more likely to choose the predictable and safe handbag option? The handbag, lovely as it may be, is likely to only provide limited happiness and satisfaction that quickly wanes as time passes. Whereas a vacation experience creates a memory that she can hold onto for the rest of her life, among other benefits. Experiences foster more social sharing & bonding (e.g. verbally or via one’s social media network), are less likely to become objects of social comparison, & are more likely to become part of one’s life story that can be reminisced upon over-and-over to generate positive feelings.

Can we encourage Karen to take a chance on experiences?

The key to encouraging experiential consumption, for those who may feel uncertain about the outcomes of experiences or how to evaluate them, is to increase “incidental experience.”

Marketers can do this through video tours, making a variety of reviews available, giving vivid descriptions and images of what to expect, etc. These strategies may make it easier for consumers like Karen to evaluate experiential options (and therefore be more likely to choose them)!

Read the original research article: Mittal, S. & Sundie, J. (2017). Not Worth the Risk? Applying Life History Theory to Understand Rejection of the Experiential Recommendation. Journal of Marketing Management. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2017.1301534

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Sarah Mittal

Sarah Mittal

Sarah Mittal, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Texas Wesleyan University. Her research focuses on situations in which consumers seem to make less-than optimal decisions for their happiness. This interest has led to papers that examine frugality, experiential consumption, decisions under risk, and loneliness.

Jill Sundie

Jill Sundie

Jill Sundie, PhD, is on the Marketing faculty at Virginia Tech. Her research examines how materialistic values influence marital health, mating motives for conspicuous consumption, consumer envy and schadenfreude, and has appeared in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.