A little high-end shopping may boost your mood, and for some, may also come with a heightened sense of status. But the emotional responses don't end there; for many consumers, luxury purchases can also spur a reaction that researchers have dubbed the "impostor syndrome."

Nailya Ordabayeva

Nailya Ordabayeva of Boston College (Lee Pellegrini)

"Luxury can be a double-edged sword," according to a study by Nailya Ordabayeva of Boston College's Carroll School of Management and her co-authors, Harvard Business School doctoral student Dafna Goor, Boston University professor Anat Keinan, and Hult International Business School professor Sandrine Crener. "While luxury consumption holds the promise of elevated status, it can backfire and make consumers feel inauthentic."

It's these feelings of inauthenticity the fuel the "impostor syndrome" among luxury consumers, the researchers explain in the Journal of Consumer Research. The team draw their conclusions based on nine studies, encompassing surveys and observations of patrons of the Metropolitan Opera, shoppers at Louis Vuitton in Manhattan, vacationers on Martha's Vineyard, and other luxury consumers.

In contrast to previous studies in this area, the researchers find that many consumers perceive luxury goods as "a privilege which is undue and undeserved."

As a result, consumers feel inauthentic while wearing or using these products, and they actually act less confident while doing so than they would with non-luxury items. For example, one participant said she felt shy when she wore a gold necklace with diamonds because it is not in her character to wear luxurious jewelry, even though she can afford it.

This effect is mitigated among consumers who have an inherently high sense of entitlement, or who are marking occasions that make them feel special, such as a birthday, the researchers add.

Both shoppers and marketers of high-end goods need to be aware of the psychological cost of luxury, as impostor feelings resulting from purchases reduce consumer enjoyment and happiness, said Ordabayeva, an assistant professor of marketing at the Carroll School. "But boosting consumers' feelings of 'deservingness' through sales tactics and marketing messages can help," she said.

Ultimately, she said, in an age that prioritizes authenticity and authentic living, creating experiences and narratives that boost people's personal connection with products and possessions can yield lasting benefits for consumers and marketers alike.

University Communications | Carroll School of Management News | January 2020