Psychology and Shopping: Ideal & Real Self

Figuring out who you are is a big question, and inherently relies on comparing yourself to other versions of yourself or to others. Your answers to that question may have some elements that are fixed while others change over the course of your lifetime. A common exercise in social psychology/sociology classes is to answer the question “Who am I?” 20 times over. How you choose to answer this is going to be a mix of what comes to mind first, what you value most, maybe some insecurities you have (“bad at math” was common amongst the social science students in class), and some demographic information when you start to run out of ideas.

Another thing to consider when thinking about who you are is how close you are to being who you want to be. There’s a lot to unpack from that as well, so I’ll keep it simple by working with “real” and “ideal” self. “Real” is, simply enough, who you are right now, for better or for worse. This is who you see yourself as, and can be a combination of your perception and what others give you as feedback of who you are. “Ideal” is who you are striving to be, whether within realistic reach or beyond what you could ever do. I don’t mean that in a defeatist way, there are limitations to what we can do – or what we care to do, just as much as we all have our strengths and passions. I like to learn through visuals, so we’ll compare how low and high overlap of “real” and “ideal” self can play out.

In our first Venn diagram, there’s not much overlap between “ideal” and “real.” We aren’t going to make any other assumptions about this sense of self – my blog posts are long enough on average, so we’re not going to try to unpack level of happiness, feelings of self-worth, sense of success, or anything else, we’re sticking to just what’s in the circles. So, there’s minimal overlap between “real” and “ideal,” which means that, to this person, there’s a lot of catching up to do for them to be their ideal self. What can influence this is the types of messages they’re exposed to and whether they choose to internalize these messages as faults/failures they need to change.

For example, you likely don’t internalize the types of messages we see in pop-up ads or spam mail (the “dermatologists hate her!” type), but you may be more inclined to consider listening to or heeding the advice of someone whose opinion you value – even if you weren’t aware of the “issue” in the first place. The more and more things or abilities that get added to the ideal pile that you don’t already possess, the further gap – or more minimal the overlap – will be between “ideal” and “real.”

The second Venn diagram has much more overlap. Who this person wants to be and who they are is mostly consistent. This could be someone who manages the number of messages they choose to internalize, someone who is able to fulfill their goals/enact their values, or someone who may see the value in their faults and how it makes them human which in turn is included in their “ideal” view of themselves.

You can reasonably expect that the gap and overlap will change throughout your life. There can be parts of yourself that you’ll (almost always) value, and other parts that used to be “ideal” but either no longer fit your lifestyle, or your goals and responsibilities have changed. How this can be a factor in shopping habits is whether the aspirations you have can be fulfilled through shopping/physical items. If you feel the need to follow specific trends or fads to feel like you belong with a specific crowd, there are likely items or fashion staples that you would need to purchase to “keep up” with everyone else. This can be related to hobbies as well (a topic I’m coming back to later this month), where to get into certain hobbies and the lifestyle that surrounds it can lead to a lot of money being spent for the sake of getting “in.” Granted, you would absolutely need to buy a kayak to get into kayaking, but for other hobbies like table top gaming or crafting, my experience has been that there’s an undercurrent of gatekeeping if you don’t own a bunch of stuff or specific brands related to the hobby.

For a personal example, when I got hired after university, I felt like I needed to overhaul my entire wardrobe for it to be work appropriate (despite having pieces that would have been fine to wear at work), which resulted in a shopping spree in preparation for entering “the real world.” I internalized that I needed to look a certain way for work, spend a chunk of money to emulate that look, and four years later, own only a handful of those pieces. On the other hand, I was in the later years of high school (16 years old) when Silly Bandz were a thing, and I saw no value in purchasing any despite most people I knew having at least some and otherwise being the type to like the idea of having a complete collection. The “need” for these items were not internalized at all, and I largely forgot about them short of watching a YouTube video about 2010s trends and fads.

It’s been a long while since I’ve last done my 20 “who am I” questions, though I’d wager that what my focuses are now are less geared toward fitting into specific groups – especially through status symbols – and more about liking who I am and what I bring to the table.

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.