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Filling a Lonely Heart

Jing WangYou don’t have to have that latest electronic gadget. You know that, but you really want it, and most research would suggest that the lonelier you are, the more likely you are to give in and buy it.

But new research from the University of Iowa suggests that it’s not so much if you’re lonely, but the nature of the loneliness that matters.

“Unlike previous research suggesting that loneliness should always lead to increased impulsivity, we postulate that only deficits of the most essential relationships will lead to impulsive behaviors,” says Jing Wang, associate professor of marketing in the Tippie College of Business, who co-authored the study with Jayati Sinha of Florida International University.

Relationship deficits, she says, depend on how many friends or emotionally close relationships a person needs. If people lack what they want, she says they’re left feeling frustrated and out of sorts.

“If someone has 10 close friends but needs 12 to be happy, then that person is not happy and has a relationship deficit,” she says. “But if someone needs just one close friend and has one, then that person is not lonely.”

For some, the most important relationships are social (such as friends). For others, they’re emotional (a spouse). Which type of relationships are essential to a particular individual? The study found that a person’s perception of time plays a role, whether they think life is short and needs to be lived right now—a limited time horizon—or if it’s a long ride to be enjoyed slowly—expanded time horizon. Wang and her coauthor showed that emotional relationships are more essential for people who view time as limited, but social relationships are more essential for people who view time as expanded.

Wang and her co-researchers used five experiments with more than 1,000 participants to measure peoples’ levels of compulsivity and what causes it. In one, for instance, they gave test subjects $10 and told them they could buy any number of office products available for sale. In another, they asked the subjects to offer their opinion on whether a protagonist in an imagined scenario should make a planned purchase or an impulsive purchase instead. In other experiments, subjects were offered Hershey’s Kisses to test their impulsiveness.

Before the experiments, some were reminded that “life is long, enjoy it forever, over a long period of time!” (to put the participants in the mindset of a longer time horizon), or “life is short, enjoy the moment!” (to reinforce a short time horizon).

The experiments all pointed to two types of people being the most susceptible to impulsive purchases—socially lonely people (that is, they don’t have many friends and are not fine with that) who have a long time horizon; and emotionally lonely people (people who feel alone) who have more short-term time horizons.

“People who are bothered by the deficit of essential relationships are depleted, it’s something that gets on their nerves and they’re thinking about it all the time until their mental resources are depleted,” Wang says. This depletion then makes them more susceptible to impulsive behavior.

The paper, “How Time Horizon Perceptions and Relationship Deficits Affect Impulsive Consumption,” was published in the current issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

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