December 8, 2013 13

Impulse vs. opportunity

By in Theory/research

Image: Liberty by Marshall Segal.

*appears from nowhere*

Now, where were we?

Impulse purchases don’t have a particularly good image. They’re generally associated with a moment of weakness, a lapse of self-control, overly spontaneous judgement, and a certain degree of irresponsibility or recklessness. But it’s not always like that, right? There are those unplanned purchases that actually turn out to be good choices – they fill a gap, they fulfill a need, they’re useful or constructive even though their arrival in your life was never intended.

It’s just a matter of semantics. If you make a spontaneous purchase that was grounded in an emotional response to an item and the item doesn’t necessarily fulfill a clear need – sure, that’s an impulse buy. However, if you make a spontaneous purchase that was grounded in a rational realisation that a particular item suits your needs, it doesn’t need to have negative connotations associated with it just because the decision was made in a short time period. It’s not an impulse purchase – it’s an opportunistic purchase.

I just thought people might like to add that term to their lexicons. It’s useful, pertinent, and also doesn’t automatically lead to the feeling of needing to provide justification for a purchase – no more “It was an impulse buy, but it’s ok because…”. Just say it was an opportunistic purchase.

I learned the term from a paper (Massara et al. 2013), which reports a study looking at how the two types of unplanned purchases – opportunistic puchases and impulse purchases – occur throughout the time-course of a shopping experience. Basically the findings were that impulse purchases become more likely towards the end of a shopping excursion, possibly because you’ve worn down your inhibitory control processes that guided your shopping behaviour towards the start. You start off trying to plan what to buy and remember what you need (and to assess possible opportunistic purchases) but that is cognitively demanding and therefore might wear down your mental resources that you use to control your thoughts and choices and not be too impulsive. So the lesson is: use a shopping list so you know what you need, then get the hell out of the shop before your cognitive control is so depleted that you end up making terrible impulse purchases.

As an aside, I actually participated in a vaguely related study when I was an undergraduate student. The idea in that study was that if I performed poorly on some task and felt bad about it, my self-control would be depleted and I’d give up more easily – and the researcher thought that would be applied to the context of shopping, in which you would go around shops trying to find an item you wanted to buy, but if you couldn’t find it after much searching (i.e. you performed poorly), you’d be cognitively worn out and you’d kind of just give up, at which moment you might make a stupid, poorly considered purchase. To test that they made participants do a commonly used, cognitively demanding task called the Stroop test (you can kind of have a go at it yourself here), and then gave the participants feedback about their performance on that test. Participants’ actual performance didn’t matter – a randomly chosen half of them were told their performance was well above average, and the other half were told their performance was below average. They were then asked to solve a maze puzzle, the trick being that the maze could not actually be solved – there simply was no solution. The hypothesis was that the participants who were told they were crap at the Stroop task would feel bad and useless, and would give up on the maze puzzle sooner. The problem with me as a participant was that I had actually done the Stroop test plenty of times and I knew how well I could do it – but I was assigned to the “you did well below average” group, so when I was given that feedback, I was pretty suspicious (even though of course I did not know that was part of the experimental manipulation until later). When I did the maze puzzle, I guessed it was insoluble, so I gave up pretty quickly. I guess the researchers should’ve screened participants to make sure they hadn’t done the Stroop test a million times before and would therefore be suspicious if given unexpected feedback. Eh.

(A second aside: thanks to people who apparently haven’t taken me off their RSS readers or their Bloglovin or whatever, whether via concerted decision or mere inaction. I was doing things like running a huge study and getting awarded my PhDcelebration time!)

May 8, 2013 33

Blogs – drivers of consumption?

By in Brain/mind, Musings

Image: Fashionsquad (source).

The other day, I was browsing assorted online retailers in search of a baseball cap. Now, I am not a baseball cap kind of person. I’m not a hat kind of person in general (unless I need to be out in the sun a lot for some reason), because my hair has the miraculous ability to shape-shift into exciting new positions and stay that way with an iron-clad will for the rest of the day… that is to say, I get some truly epic hat-hair. So in day-to-day life, I’m not really one for hats. Why, then, was I looking for a baseball cap to buy? Presumably my follow-up plan to buying it would have been to wear it, in which case, why was I shopping for something I’d probably never wear? Well, because I’m an impressionable little ape and I saw a few photos on blogs of people wearing baseball caps and looking kind of cool and I thought “Hmm, maybe I should give that a go”.

I do wonder about the impact of blog content (whether it be photos, written thoughts, reviews, whatever) on purchasing behaviour and consumption. I’ve written before about the mere-exposure effect, that funny little psychological phenomenon in which just seeing something repeatedly can make you like it more. An annoying consequence might be that you start to like things that didn’t grab your attention or your affections at all to start with. In the context of style/fashion blogs, it might be a specific item (e.g. people looking lovely in, say, a pair of Ray-Ban Clubmasters or something) or a more generic category of item (e.g. people wearing baseball caps!), but the effect might be the same – maybe the more you see it, the more you like it, even if it isn’t necessarily really your thing. And maybe you go out and buy it. That’s the potential power of blog content.

This NPR article, Showing Off Shopping Sprees, Fashion ‘Haulers’ Cash In Online, fills the picture in a bit more, describing how vloggers (and I’d say bloggers too, by extension, since plenty of blogs contain dissections of hauls) discuss their buys online and turn their purchase reviews into sponsorship and income. Of particular interest was the link to this Google report about the role of YouTube in shopping, which says “video has become so influential that 4 in 10 shoppers visited a store online or in-person as a direct result of watching a video”. Now that statistic is a bit vague – I think they mean that 40% of people have visited a store as a direct result of watching a video at least once in their life, not that an average of 40% of people viewing a given video will then visit the store – but all the same, that is a considerable amount of influence. And I’d hazard a guess that it’s the case for not just YouTube haul videos but also blogs.

This results in an interesting little quandary (which I’m sure has a very nebulous answer, with a lot of caveats) – how does blogging about material goods affect readers’ consumption? What are the unintended consequences?

When I see a recommendation about an item from a blogger whose writing and style and thoughts I respect and/or identify with, I often feel a pang of “Maybe should get that excellent item too, even though I don’t really need it in my life”. When I see a positive review from such a blogger regarding a brand I haven’t tried, I feel like trying the brand too, even when the purchase would be clearly superfluous to my needs. When I see awesome outfit photos, sometimes they make me feel like I suddenly have gaps in my wardrobe that weren’t there before. Yet at the same time, the very same information has positive effects: a product recommendation could guide someone to buy a good quality item that doesn’t need replacing for years, avoiding the need for further purchases; a positive review of a brand could coax someone away from high quantities of low quality clothes towards low quantities of high quality clothes; and an awesome outfit photo could inspire someone to put together items already in their wardrobe in novel and interesting ways instead of buying something new. There are two sides to this coin, seemingly, and it’s pretty much impossible to weigh them against each other.

Ultimately, blogging about products or brands or material goods in some way, shape or form is the basis of a lot of blog content, and this likely has both good and bad consequences for readers’ purchasing behaviour – perhaps to a greater extent than a lot of bloggers realise. However, I’d say it’s hardly the responsibility of bloggers to nanny their readers and avoid posting such content on the chance that someone might go out and buy something they don’t actually need. It’s more the case that it’s just good for us all to be aware of the potential influences on our thoughts and impulses, and to take those into consideration when making our purchasing decisions. So I suppose I’ll just be closing all those browser tabs that contain baseball caps and replacing them with recipes for pretzel tacos.

May 1, 2013 18

A few things

By in Ethics/sustainability, Musings

Image: J.C. Leyendecker artwork for Kuppenheimer, 1921.

A few little things.

1. Lucy Siegle critiques H&M’s 2012 sustainability report.

Lucy Siegle, author of the incredibly insightful and eye-opening book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? (which many of you are familiar with), has written up her review of H&M’s sustainability report, and came to similar conclusions about it as I did: it’s some part genuine effort, some part greenwashing, and needs to be considered along with a whole lot more information that isn’t provided in the document – “the 2012 Conscious Action report is good stuff, and at turns very good indeed, but it requires context. Read it, but not in isolation.”

2. Relationships with clothes

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve got some posts planned that look at how personal style and consumption relate to identity and a sense of self. I’ll be approaching it from the angle of empirical research (as per usual), in which data obtained from many people can allow us to understand the general trends and relationships that might exist. Just as interesting, however, is approaching it from the individual angle and exploring what clothes and consumption personally mean to different people. The excellent Clothes Relationships does just that.

3. “My wardrobe is so schizophrenic!”

To quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Y’all really have to stop using the word “schizophrenic” to describe your wardrobes. I’ve seen it quite a few times, and I saw it again on a style blog just now (prompting me to finally get off my backside and write this PSA). I know people aren’t using the word with any ill intentions and it’s a common enough mistake, but it’s important to understand that schizophrenia is not the same thing as multiple personalities, which I think is what a lot of people are trying to get at when they use the word in the context of a wardrobe.

Schizophrenia is a multifaceted, complex disorder and can be characterised by assorted combinations of symptoms, none of which involves having multiple or fragmented personalities (that’s more Dissociative Identity Disorder, which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder). Schizophrenia can be characterised by hallucinations (most commonly auditory, sometimes visual or in other modalities), delusions (e.g. the belief that people can read your thoughts, the belief that people are following you or persecuting you), abnormalities of speech, and emotional/social problems (flattened affect, lack of motivation, disinterest in relationships, etc), among other things. If this describes your wardrobe, that is really weird.

Individuals with schizophrenia already have an almost impossibly hard time as it is dealing with their symptoms and situation, given the challenges they face in holding down their job, maintaining relationships with family and friends, the side-effects or inefficacy of medications, the above-average suicide rate that’s associated with the disorder, being at increased risk of being a victim of violent and non-violent crime, and so on. They already bear the brunt of a lot of misunderstanding, so it would be good if we could all try to avoid misconceptions, to learn a little bit more about the disorder, and to not mischaracterise it.

April 27, 2013 28

Human costs and benefits

By in Ethics/sustainability

Image by Andrew Biraj for Reuters. Source.

The recent garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 200 people, is a harrowing incident that vividly captures the human cost of cheap, fast fashion. It’s hard not to have a visceral response to such a tragedy when so many people have died and so many families have lost loved ones, all so that other people in the world can get a vaguely offensive trucker cap for £4 (Primark was one of the companies whose goods were being produced in that particular factory). It’s so offensive and shameful that this is the cost of cheap production and mass consumption, and people will surely feel more acutely than ever that something needs to be done, and quickly.

However, unfortunately it’s actually not that clear what the correct course of action would be.

In the past, in response to this sort of scandal and tragedy and in response to public outcry, companies have severed their contracts with such factories and taken their business elsewhere. This might seem like the correct thing to do and could subsequently discourage dodgy factory owners and managers from trying to get away with dangerous working conditions or practices. However, when a company pulls out like that, the impact is borne by the factory workers – with reduced business translating to reduced pay or job losses – and the workers are the very people who are already the most vulnerable and who have no safety net for that sudden change in circumstances.

As I’ve said before, despite the horrific environmental and ethical problems that seem so ingrained in the industry of fast fashion and cheap production and mass consumption, that industry is actually providing valuable economic contributions to developing countries. Despite all the problems with the industry, if it were to somehow magically disappear overnight, it would be a horrific set-back to many countries and regions and would potentially plunge struggling people deeper into poverty.

These two articles outline some of the considerations we have to make when it comes to cheap manufacturing and fast fashion, given the potential positive effects that could be occurring amid the myriad negative effects:

‘In Praise of Sweatshops’ by Alex Massie at The Spectator (quite the attempt at an incendiary article title there).
‘Bangladesh disaster: Forcing sweatshops to radically improve safety standards could do more harm than good’ by Tom Chivers at The Telegraph.

The matter was always going to be complicated, but it’s perhaps even more complicated than we thought. It’s not about trying to figure out which is the lesser of two evils – there are so many interrelated factors and pros and cons and differing contexts that it’s hard to put together a clear picture of who should do what and when. There are a lot of questions, and they are difficult to answer. Are terrible, unethical working conditions something we need to tolerate in the short-term in order to reach something much better in the long-term? Should we boycott brands and companies who partly contribute to human suffering yet are providing what is arguably better employment than what the workers would otherwise have? How can we improve working conditions as quickly as possible without undermining economic growth? How certain can we be that things are going to get better in the long run, and that we are going about all this the right way? And how do we weigh this potential improvement against the other costs that will still remain – the environmental damage, the unsustainable practices, the production of the raw materials that could still involve unethical working conditions?

And even if we could know that the contributions of the industry will result in better standards of living for many and a way for countries to become stronger economically – that’s small comfort for the families who are currently grieving over loved ones who lost their lives in that Bangladeshi factory collapse.

April 23, 2013 36

“The Classics 2.0” – hahaha no wait this is awful

By in Musings

Some of you will remember that I wrote some posts a while back about the “classic” wardrobe pieces that the media insist we all need, and we all had a very good discussion about whether a classic wardrobe would translate to decreased consumption, whether it was something worth aiming for or whether it’s even achievable considering all the attendant caveats, and so on. I now read articles about wardrobe classics/staples/essentials with great interest, albeit from a more critical perspective than the writers and fashion editors probably wish that I would. Net-A-Porter has a “wardrobe classics” article in their magazine at the moment called “Style Rethink: The Classics 2.0”. Already I’m mildly amused because even the title suggests that the classics aren’t classic at all; they aren’t immutable and timeless because we have to update them with new versions. Well, I hope you all know that now you have to have leather leggings: they’re “timeless” and convey “nonchalant chic”, Net-A-Porter says. (I thought “kind of sweaty” and “costly to take to the dry-cleaners” would be more accurate.)

Anyway, the article was pretty innocuous – blah blah blah someone’s angrily jealous of Jane Birkin’s sweater blah blah blah Dicker boots literally haunt the writer’s dreams blah blah blah – but then I hit a paragraph that flicked my rage switch:

Inanimate objects do not possess magical powers, of course they don’t. And yet, don’t you have certain game-changing pieces in your closet, which, however awful you are feeling at the time, make you feel taller, cleverer, slimmer, more confident, more equal to the world from the moment you put them on?

Or as the weirdly capitalised pull-quote put it:

I have a couple of blog posts planned that discuss possible reasons why our sense of identity seems so bound up in the way we dress, and how capitalism has hooked into that in a way that aims to draw us into being constant, voracious consumers. There’s no doubt that the way we dress is a part of our personality and allows us to communicate what we consider to be important messages about our identity or our values. Furthermore, there’s no doubt that to varying extents, the way we dress impacts other people’s perceptions of us. On top of all that, clothes can change the way we feel about ourselves – they can make us feel stronger or more empowered or more professional or more confident or whatever. They can help us restore our sense of self and reassert ourselves after we’ve had an experience that shakes us (more on that in a later post).

But that is not what that paragraph in the Net-A-Porter magazine is saying. The language in that paragraph is offensive and patronising on multiple levels, and it is a perfect example of the insidious messages being marketed to us so incessantly and intensely – buy things and you’ll be a better person.

Not only that, it mixes in sentiments that play on our insecurities about not living up to society’s superficial, unrealistic expectations. Only within that weird, distorted mess of ridiculous societal expectations would feeling taller or slimmer be considered an antidote to feeling awful. Can we just take a moment to appreciate the overwhelming amount of nonsense that’s been packed into so few words? The article is saying that the antidote to feeling awful is to feel taller and slimmer. “Tall” and “slim” are ostensibly being used here as synonyms for “happy”. I’m sorry, but that’s some serious bullshit. It is intensely depressing that, even in just a playful article that seems like it’s supposed to be an irreverent discussion of “iconic” garments, such disempowering language that undermines people’s self-esteem is used so casually. The writer could have said that, when you’re feeling awful, clothes can make you feel stronger or more empowered (granted, it does say “more confident” in the body of the article, although that has been excised from the pull-quote as if it’s not so important), but no – apparently what’s important is feeling slimmer and taller, and if you buy clothes that make you feel slimmer and taller, maybe your awful problems will magically melt away. But that’s not the solution; that’s a cycle in which companies and the media make us feel inadequate, try to sell us something they promise will make us feel more adequate, and then come up with new and exciting ways to make us feel inadequate again.

As for the writer saying that clothes can make you feel cleverer, you know what’s actually pretty good at making you feel cleverer? Learning. If you take the time to learn and to enrich your knowledge of the world, not only will you feel cleverer – you’ll actually be cleverer. If for whatever reason you feel insecure about how smart you are – and we all experience situations that make us feel dumb at some point – then the solution to that is to learn. Putting on a pair of leather leggings or a nice trench-coat makes no actual difference to how clever you are. If you want to dress up in tweeds or whatever because you enjoy a particular “bookish” or “erudite” look, that’s great. But if you’re in a situation that makes you feel challenged and like you’re not clever enough (again, it happens to everyone, except maybe sociopaths), buying and wearing specific clothes is not going to get at the root of that problem.

I don’t think the writer of the Net-A-Porter article was necessarily carefully and purposefully selecting her words in a way that would subtly make readers feel the need to buy clothes in order to feel better about themselves – I know plenty of people who would use similar language who don’t have anything to sell. That sort of disempowering language is the result of the constant social and cultural pressures exerted on us and how people assimilate such sentiments into their own thoughts and language. It’s evidence of how extensively such sentiments have been accepted that they are used casually, thoughtlessly and unquestioningly, making them even more difficult to escape or to ignore. When such sentiments are presented so subtly and consistently, either with or without an agenda, it’s unsurprising that people start to feel like maybe buying some clothes will fix some of their problems.

Clothing can be a lot of things. It can be armor, it can be a mask, it can be a form of communication, it can allow us to explore and create identities. What it cannot do is make you happy if you’re not. It cannot necessarily fix self-esteem issues. It cannot solve life’s problems. It is important to remember all this when you are being targeted by a system that wants to convince you that you are inadequate and that buying something will make you a better, more adequate person.