Psychology & Shopping: Locus of Control & Attribution Theory

A few disclaimers before we begin:

1) These are theories that were first published in the 50s & 60s in the USA. They have been retested with different variables and have had similar outcomes – which is the standard for a theory to still be seen as, uh, legit.
2) With any theory in the social sciences, there are limits to how many experiences will align entirely with the theory. Your experiences, beliefs, perspectives, culture, mood, and more can impact how you will respond to a given situation.
3) How you feel the theory applies to you may change over time, and may change from one context to the next. I’m going to be applying the theory strictly in the context of shopping, though I encourage you to think about it in other areas of your life as well.

So, What is Locus of Control?

There are two ends to a spectrum that are labeled “internal” and “external,” and in general, a person’s perspective will fall somewhere within the line – or at an extreme – of what they believe controls their outcomes. Someone who is more toward “external” sees outcomes and consequences as being left to fate or luck, and may be less inclined to try to take control of a situation if they feel that there’s nothing to do about it. For someone who is more toward “internal,” they see outcomes and consequences as mostly in their power, and will see the results as a direct consequence of the choice they made.

And Attribution Theory?

Frequently in psychology, behaviours are placed along two spectra, which offers a lot of variety for where someone can land. Later theorists have looked at what influences someone’s response to a situation: the result is based on something internal/personality and would likely be the same across multiple situations (“dispositional”) or it differs depending on the context (“situational”).

How this Applies to Shopping

How this may apply to shopping depends on how someone can choose to react to sales, bargain finds, and more. For the sake of not complicating this, we’ll use the same situation for four different people (I’m going with 4/5 sisters from Pride and Prejudice for names – but not specific to the actual characters), and here’s the scenario: there’s a seasonal sale at the local mall, which includes stores that our four examples would regularly shop at, as well as stores they usually don’t care about. Our first person, Jane, is drawn in to the stores where she usually shops, makes purchases for items that she would usually buy, and because it’s sale season, has a look at other stores just in case there’s anything else on her list that she can take care of (internal, situational). Jane may stay on budget, but this will depend on what else she finds for her list. Lizzy, on the other hand, goes into the mall with her wish list items that she planned for, and doesn’t bother checking other stores since she knows she doesn’t need anything they sell (internal, dispositional). Lizzy will come in on budget or below, depending on if anything from her wish list is no longer available. Next, we have Mary, who happened to be at the mall the weekend of the sale – as luck would have it – and will spend the day going from store to store (in order of preference) just to see what she can find (external, dispositional). Mary’s budget may have been forgotten in taking advantage of scooping up great finds. Finally, Kitty’s rainboots have splashed their last puddle, and it just so happens that the shoe store has rainboots on clearance as winter is on its way. Kitty will take advantage of the sale since the stars aligned, but isn’t too worried about the rest of the sales going on – she’s got only her rainboots on her mind (external, situational). Kitty’s budget is rainboots, and rainboots alone.

How this Applies to Me

How this may apply to you will depend on which person you identify with most. If you feel like you might be more of a Jane or Mary, you may find yourself spending time and money that you might not have intended to, especially if your goal (like mine has been in the past) is to find the best possible bargains – regardless of your needing them. I think that reflecting on how you react to information related to shopping – new collection drop, limited run, flash sale, clearance, store closure – would be the best place to start. You can’t move towards making a change if you don’t know where your behaviours are coming from, you know? For myself, I feel that I’ve been in the mindset of each example person at least once – though, historically, I would have been in the middle between a Jane and Mary, and now I’m closer to a Lizzy since leading up to my No Buy year. I feel like I’m more in control to say “no,” to the things I don’t need so I can say “yes,” to the experiences I want. A $200 clothing haul every other month feels great in the moment, but I’m now more hyped about turning that money into seeing more of the world with clothes I already love. I’d be curious to know how others who are also doing a No Buy feel their alignment has been or currently is.

Further Reading/Reference List:

In case you’d like to dive in on the original theory, here are the two major sources I’ve scouted from:
1. Locus of control: Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 80(1), 1.
2. Attribution theory: Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.

My Shopping Habits

Living somewhere with four distinct seasons means you need to dress for different temperatures. Living somewhere with four distinct seasons means you have many “opportunities” to shop throughout the year to “update” your wardrobe, whether by season, sales, or more frequently through the fast-fashion trend cycle. I would only shop sales (self-proclaimed bargain-hunter here!), which would result in more items coming in – even if I’m spending the same amount of money. Shopping online, I’d comb through each page of the website looking for hidden deals, seeing if there’s anything that I could add either to reach my free-shipping minimum or to treat myself. In person, I could spend a whole day at the mall, circling the same displays, trying clothes on, and walking out with an armload of bags. This would happen once a month, on average. I wouldn’t plan what I was buying, and when I did, I would leave the store or online transaction with at least twice as much in hand. My biggest trap was getting every variation of something, so I could have a “complete” selection to take from to dress myself – whether that’s eight pairs of shorts that are the same length but different colours, or wanting to get all the prints and solids of a dress. Especially when ordering online, I wasn’t paying attention to the quality of the items I was buying – whether the stitching was in an odd place for my body, things weren’t a great fit, or the garment would hang funny on my frame. I’m not yet well-versed in spotting quality garment-making, but I know what I don’t like and what I’m unwilling to tolerate being on my body.

I wasn’t consciously focusing on avoiding repeating an outfit, though I know from experience that I could go from August to early November without the same outfit being worn twice, since 2018. The definition of “outfit” has changed since 2020, where previously it meant I had enough clothing to wear something different for 100 days or so, with only accessories and shoes being repeated. Now, however, that would be more about the combination of what I’m wearing: maybe I’ve worn this top with these shorts a few weeks ago, but now the top is paired with a skirt and a cardigan as the fall weather sets in. The volume of clothing and accessories that I have – both per season and in total – means that I can likely go a full year without wearing the exact outfit twice. I don’t need to be able to do that; I don’t have any desire to be consumed by thoughts of whether this turtleneck and skirt combo has been done with these boots and earrings.

“these were next to each other, so I got them both,”

In December’s digital declutter, I rewatched my old haul vlogs that still live on my laptop. I realised that nothing from those videos is still in my closet. Well, I do still have the same bedding and towels (mostly) that I bought to move on campus as a first year, but nothing else is in my possession. 19-year-old me and 27-year-old me don’t have the same taste (nor the same body), and much of what was purchased was in my university colours, which aren’t in my wardrobe in any significant way now. Having sat with this for a bit, and after another rewatch, what stood out to me now was the language that I was using to talk about the purchases: “these were next to each other, so I got them both,” “this matches everything else in my closet, so of course, I had to get it,” “I think this will look good in case I need a backup,” and probably most relatable, “it was cute, so I needed it.” I’ll be honest and say that some of the basics (tank tops, in this case) have been forgotten to time, though everything else that was purchased was well loved – some pieces even staying in rotation all four years of my degree and even after I’d finished university – so it wasn’t as though they were bought and then dumped a month later, at the very least.

It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve really scaled back my shopping for clothing, but there are shopping patterns that creep back in when I’m not being intentional. I still get a rush from getting a discount percent-point that would look great on a report card, and when I was looking for turtlenecks while thrifting last fall, I felt the urge to get them in every colour available. For about two weeks, thrifting caught my attention – the combination of inexpensive prices, a wide variety to browse (the men’s section had looser fits for turtlenecks), and the unpredictable nature of whether I’d find what I’m looking for. I thought this would be better for me, after all, since it’s not adding to the demand for new clothing, it’s extending the life of an existing garment, and I’m helping the local economy by shopping in-store (as opposed to going through apps). However, while walking from one thrift store chain to another – out to purchase only the specifics on my list – I caught myself thinking, “well, if I don’t find a houndstooth skirt today, I can always come back in a few weeks, and maybe see if they have a few more colours of turtlenecks as well.” At that moment, I had five turtleneck shirts that I’d thrifted across three shops, and another on the way as a birthday gift (please note, I’m using the turtleneck throughout as an example of how pervasive the desire can be for me about a specific item or style of clothing).

I took some time over the rest of the week to comb through my following list and unfollow any accounts that were more aspirational than inspirational

What was equally concerning was that I’d moved the target of my behaviour – shopping for sets or varieties of things – to a different location with lower price points, meaning that I would still be bringing in more “new” rather than making do what what I had already. Part of this came from learning about capsule wardrobe accounts on Instagram, and frequently seeing neutrals and basics all over my feed and explore page meant that I felt like I couldn’t replicate these looks and be just as fancy/classy/put together as the women – or sometimes just clothes! – in the posts. I was using them less for inspiration to use what I already had, and more saw it as a checklist for my next thrift hunt. I took some time over the rest of the week to comb through my following list and unfollow any accounts that were more aspirational than inspirational, and anything that I wanted for clothing or shoes, I left on a wishlist for my birthday. Full honesty, I forgot about what precise pair of shoes I’d added to the wishlist (but knew they’d been purchased), which was a lesson in the difference between a need and a want. If I had to go shoeless in the interim, I’d definitely have those shoes in mind – but I was fine choosing from the 10 other pairs that I could comfortably wear for work in the weeks that passed. I don’t regret now having the shoes – they add a touch of polish to my workwear without having to wear heels – but I certainly could have gone without to no consequence.

I clearly have a lot of thoughts about my relationship to shopping, so I’ll pause this here for now, but I will absolutely be coming back to this topic in the future.