Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that a stressful experience that challenges their self-image, consumers tend to increase their overall consumption in order to distract themselves and "forget all about it."
"Retail therapy" is a common coping mechanism similar to emotional eating, the researchers said.
Their study showed that people also shop when they know a stressful situation is coming.
However, shoppers are very selective in choosing only products that are specific to the potentially negative situation, they found.
For example, a student might buy a bottle of electrolyte-enhanced Smartwater before taking a math test. A consumer might splurge on some expensive jewelry prior to attending a high school reunion to guard against the perception that they have not been successful in life.
Another shopper might purchase a designer suit prior to presenting at an important meeting where their business savvy might be scrutinised.
"Prior to receiving any negative feedback, consumers select products that are specifically associated with bolstering or guarding the part of the self that might come under threat," study authors Soo Kim and Derek Rucker were quoted as saying by LiveScience.
The selective shopping habits exhibited prior to an anticipated stressful event change after a stressful event has occurred, the researchers said.
After receiving negative feedback, consumers seem to increase their shopping more generally as consumption may serve as a means to distract them from the negative feedback, the authors concluded.
The findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Research.