How do you react to bad news? A failed promotion attempt? A lower than expected grade on your final exam? An argument with your spouse over your Xmas holiday plans, whether to visit your parents or theirs? Most of us can probably recall similarly sad, anxiety-provoking, or disappointing experiences. How do we cope? A luscious chocolate cake to indulge ourselves? A night out with friends for distraction? A round of squash to let off steam? Or do we finally upgrade to that new car we’ve been eyeing for months? Whatever strategy is ultimately selected, a common theme across these behaviours is that they are often compensatory in nature. But is that a bad thing?

In our article recently published in the Journal of Marketing Management, we set out to explore this question, among others. At the core of the paper is our desire to achieve a better understanding of compensatory consumption. So here are some highlights from the manuscript.

The concept

Compensatory consumption refers to our tendency to consume goods and services that symbolically compensate for discrepancies between our ideal and actual self-states. Put differently, whenever something threatens our sense of equilibrium, be it a person, a story, an emotion or an event, we tend to take some measures to restore our wellbeing. Or, in other words, we compensate. And we often do so in a way that remains entirely outside of our awareness. Does it always happen? No. Do we all follow the same patterns? No. Do we face the same consequences? Again, no. And this is why understanding this concept is so challenging.

The triggers

What can they be? Many things, really. Imagine you were recently turned down for a promotion within your firm. You were obviously disappointed, but with time, managed to come to terms with the decision and tried your best to move on, hoping for better results next time (we’ve all been there). Then one day you open your LinkedIn account and see an announcement from your former college roommate. It turns out that they have been offered the very same position you just applied for in your organisation, and will now be your boss. On the one hand, you’re happy for them (at least on the surface), but on the other hand, you feel very frustrated once again. Learning about their success is a trigger for you. You’re feeling inadequate and annoyed, and it seems like your career is going nowhere (again, we’ve all been there). It is obviously an unpleasant sensation that requires your attention, and may evoke a compensatory cycle (let’s shop!). Your eyes wander to the clock, thinking about the cold drink you’re going to have after work; or alternatively, you switch from the exciting spreadsheet that was previously occupying your attention to Amazon, ebay or any one of a number of websites that offer the promise of a purchase that will help elevate your mood in the meantime.

Your methods of compensation are not necessarily mine

Some of us are more sensitive to our social environments than others. We also differ in terms of our personalities and our consumption related preferences. Similarly, we tend to value things differently. For instance, we may feel bad if our grant proposal is rejected but, at the same time, are indifferent if a friend of ours shows up in a Ferrari (we may, however, wonder how a lecturer has managed to afford such a car!). Others who are more status oriented may not share the same sentiments, they may be much more disgruntled. And some people simply have higher levels of satisfaction and acceptance regarding themselves, which makes them less prone to responding to self-esteem threats via consumption.

I shop when I’m sad. Should I be concerned?

Not necessarily – although this is where the literature is contradictory. There are several studies that build on large samples, experiments and surveys, and conclude that compensatory engagements are harmful and should be avoided. Other evidence that relies on smaller samples but provides rich qualitative insights suggests that compensatory engagements are in fact fairly normal and most of us engage in them from time-to-time without exposing ourselves to any risk. So, which view is correct?

Both groups are right to some extent. While compensatory practices can be negative and harmful, they can also be positive and therapeutic given the right circumstances. And this is an important distinction and contribution of our work. We have developed a continuum of compensatory practices. Adding substantial nuance to the literature we introduce the distinction between compensation and compromise. But what, you may ask, does this mean for you? Really, you need to understand where you fall along this range of behaviours. If you occasionally consume products to give your self-esteem a boost, you are more likely to compromise rather than compensate, and the chances are you will be fine. However, if you find that your compensatory engagements are becoming a regular means of escape, without providing you with much satisfaction, then you may face more serious problems and disruptive consequences. This is consistent with our understanding of a wide variety of other psychological phenomena. For instance, double-checking to confirm that you unplugged the iron or locked the door before leaving your building does not necessarily make you an obsessive-compulsive individual.

Implications and the future

Our work has the potential to inform public policy and managerial decisions in a variety of ways. Recognising that these behaviours are common and representative of the general public would certainly help to reduce the overly negative connotations and potential stigma often associated with compensatory consumption. But we still have a long way to go. How do we maintain the therapeutic aspects while reducing the possibly harmful and detrimental consequences? We need to realise that some people are more likely to fall prey to the external triggers that initiate these compensatory cycles than others. And some of them may need help. Excessive consumption can be harmful for an individual’s well-being – professionally, personally as well as economically. And for this reason, it is important that we better understand how people shift from fairly normal consumption habits to exhibiting addictive and compulsive tendencies. And instead of providing them with further personal loans and gambling opportunities, perhaps we can find ways in which to help them confront their challenges.

Read the original research article: Koles, B., Wells, V. & Tadajewski, M. (2017). Compensatory consumption and consumer compromises: a state-of-the-art review. Journal of Marketing Management.

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Bernadett Koles

Bernadett Koles

Dr. Bernadett Koles, Ed.D. is a professor of Marketing at Rennes School of Business, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Durham Business School. Her research focuses on compensatory and compromisory consumption, offline and virtual consumer identity, and the role of anticipation in consumer experiences. Her work has been published in a range of journals including the Journal of Marketing Management, Psychology & Marketing, and Organizational Psychology Review.

Victoria Wells

Victoria Wells

Victoria Wells is Professor of Sustainable and Ethical Management at York University Management School. Her research work falls in the general area of consumer behaviour and consumer responses to marketing actions. In particular, she is interested in the role the environment plays in consumers’ behaviour whether it is how the environment affects consumer choices or how consumers’ behaviour affects physical environment. Victoria is Deputy Editor of the Journal of Marketing Management.

Mark Tadajewski

Mark Tadajewski

Professor Mark Tadajewski is the Editor of the Journal of Marketing Management.

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.