Alice Wang
December 18, 2016
Jeff Charis-Carlson

It's an old axiom that people should avoid going to the grocery store while feeling hungry — or risk bringing home a lot more food than they intended.

The research of an associate professor of marketing at the University of Iowa suggests that people also might want to avoid any type of shopping while feeling lonely — or risk engaging in impulse buying.

For the past decade, Jing “Alice” Wang has been exploring the question: “What happens when consumers feel lonely?”

There is a good amount of research already out there, Wang said, documenting how people who are lonely tend to engage in various impulsive behaviors that they often later come to regret.

The research conducted by Wang and her colleagues shows that, in shopping situations, people who report having a "friends deficit" tend to make different purchasing decisions than people who report having a sufficient number of supportive friends.

The research shows that people who are lonely are more at risk of taking products home from the store that they weren't necessarily intending to buy. The perceived lack of control, she said, can lead to a cascade of negative emotions, especially regret.

People who aren’t lonely — that is, who are satisfied with the number and quality of relationships in their lives — usually have more self-control and are less likely to make spur-of-the-moment decisions while shopping.

Shoppers who are lonely, she said, also are more likely to bond with a product — seeing it as a human being and treating it that way.

If there is a product that is endorsed by 80 percent of previous consumers and another that is endorsed by only 20 percent, consumers who self-identity as lonely more often will choose the less popular product for personal use. “They feel it’s a good fit for them,” she said.

But if they are going to use that product in a more public setting, lonely shoppers more often will choose the more popular product.

The definition of loneliness is subjective, and differs from person to person, Wang said.

“It’s not about factual numbers of friends," she said. "It’s about how you feel."

The questions used for measuring loneliness center on the perceived quality of friends: “When you need to talk to someone, do you have someone to talk to?” and “Do you feel your relationships with others are meaningful?”

“To the extent that you have a friend on the other end of the globe that you can pick up the phone and talk to when you need to, then you aren’t lonely,” she said. “On the other hand, if you have many people around you but you don’t feel you can talk to them, then you are lonely.”

For people who recognize that they are subject to shopping while lonely, Wang has the following advice: “Get a friend to go with you so they can help you control your behavior."