Alice Wang
November 16, 2016
Tom Snee

Black Friday is approaching, signaling the start of another frenzied shopping season and mobs of people looking for the perfect gifts, both for others and themselves.

Most will keep their spending in control. Some will not, and many of those who indulge in impulsive shopping will do so because they are lonely. Jing “Alice” Wang, associate professor of marketing in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, studies lonely people, in particular their shopping habits and relationships with retailers.

The people Wang researches are not people who are simply alone or are by themselves for a period of time. Her interest is in those who have a “friendship deficit,” meaning they don’t have the number of relationships with other people that they want. There’s no set number of friends that people need, she says—that all depends on the individual.

Someone growing up in a big family with lots of kids might need a lot of relationships to be happy,” Wang says. “Others can be happy with just two or three friends. For some, a friend on the other side of the globe to talk with on the phone is enough.”

People who are unhappy because they don’t have as many relationships as they want are classified as lonely, and that often sets their behavior apart from people who say they have enough friends, Wang says.

Q: How does being lonely affect a person’s shopping habits?

A: Because a lonely person doesn’t have the kind of relationships they want, they feel socially isolated, so they’re worried about what they don’t have, and that leads to mental-resource depletion. Research has found resource depletion has many different effects on people, and one of them is impulsive buying. Lonely people don’t mean to buy something, they just do, and this can lead to negative downstream emotions, like regret. People who aren’t lonely, who are satisfied with the number and quality of relationships in their lives, usually have more self-control and are less likely to shop impulsively.

Lonely people, socially isolated people, also tend to be less pro-social, so they’re less likely to give gifts or donate money to organizations.

Q: What sort of buying habits do lonely people have that set them apart from people with emotionally fulfilling relationships?

A: Lonely people are more likely to choose a product that the minority wants. If a product is advertised as something eight out of 10 people prefer, they’re less likely to buy it for private use. They’re more apt to buy something that only 20 percent of people prefer. Lonely people sense that they’re in the minority themselves because most people aren’t lonely, so if a product is endorsed by a minority, they can relate more with it.

There’s one caveat to this. If they’re going to use the product in public, not just in their homes, they’re more likely to buy the majority-endorsed product.

Lonely people are also more likely to bond with a product. They see that product as a human being and treat it that way. They form a meaningful connection to it. That’s not the case with shoppers who aren’t lonely. They tend to buy things either for the product functions or for public show. They don’t typically form human-like relationships with it.

Q: What other traits does your research find that lonely people have that others don’t?

A: One of my lines of research suggests that lonely people also tend to have lower moral standards. For example, if a person buys a holiday dress, wears it twice and then returns it a week later, is that OK? Most people will say that’s not OK. But lonely people are more likely to say it’s fine.

We’re not really sure why this is, and researchers are struggling to find a link. My research has shown that lonely people seem to lack empathy. Maybe if they could see it from a store’s point of view, that the store is suffering a loss from their returns, they won’t do it.

Q: How can your research be used?

A: It depends on your perspective. From the consumer perspective, you can use it to note that if you’re isolated and lonely, you have to monitor yourself for impulsive shopping so you don’t buy a lot of things you don’t need. From a business perspective, you can use it to address consumers who are lonely so that they buy products that make them happy, and they don’t just buy it to buy it.