Why Do We Buy Things We Don't Need?

Have you ever wondered why we buy things we don't need? Enter and discover the answer as well as some reflections on the issue.
Why Do We Buy Things We Don't Need?

Last update: 22 December, 2022

Many of the things we buy aren’t really necessary. In fact, if you take a look at your shopping list for the past year, you’ll discover, somewhat to your surprise, that more than half of it is essentially superfluous. So, why do we buy things we don’t need? Why do we spend huge amounts of money each year on non-essential items? Today we’ll reflect on these questions.

The reasons why we buy things we don’t need

In 1943 Abraham Maslow proposed the now popular hierarchy of human needs. Known as Maslow’s pyramid, it points out that people tend to satisfy higher needs as they satisfy basic needs. The pyramid has five levels, which are distributed by hierarchies. Let’s briefly review each of these:

  1. Physiological needs: Such as drinking water, breathing, sleeping, having sex, and so on.
  2. Safety and protection needs: Such as having a home (or renting one), money, a transportation vehicle, guaranteeing health, and others.
  3. Social needs: For example, creating circles of friendship, having a partner, and obtaining social acceptance.
  4. Esteem needs: Among which are self-respect (independence, freedom, trust) and respect from other people (attention, appreciation, status, reputation, and glory).
  5. Self-actualization: Self-actualization is reached when the previous needs are satisfied. Maslow described it as the desire to achieve all one can, to become the most one can be.

Maslow’s pyramid had a great reception in the fields of business, marketing, and advertising. The idea is very simple: As someone satisfies their most basic needs, they’ll look for new needs to satisfy. Not all of these are available, so they have to be created. Companies are then in charge of creating needs that buyers need to satisfy.

Together with other variables, this is what leads to a person owning 10 different shoes, changing their cell phones regularly, buying seasonal items of clothing, and wanting the latest gadgets that the market has to offer. Buying things that we don’t need has gone from being a whim to becoming the goal of life in today’s society.

Advertising and its influence on your purchase criteria

A rather and his two teens watching television.
Good advertising creates new consumer needs, something to which everyone is constantly exposed.

Another reason why we buy things we don’t need has to do with advertising. Year after year, corporations invest massive amounts of money in order to personalize their messages and products, as well as to discover new tactics to encourage repeat consumption. Advertising modifies your needs, desires, and habits to the point of molding you as a subject of consumption.

We find advertising on TV shows, movies, apps, video games, web pages, shopping malls, on the streets, and just about anywhere. Today, you see advertising even when you’re in the bathroom (when you use your cell phone) and it’s one of the first things you interact with when you wake up. Faced with this bombardment, it’s natural for you to buy things you don’t need.

Researchers warn that this exposure can lead to episodes of compulsive shopping. Compulsive shopping disorder is a disorder characterized by the irresistible urge to buy things. For those in a particularly sensitive position, publicity can give the final push into the spiral of this disorder.

At this point, we want to review the postulates of the Diderot effect. It alludes to the experience that Diderot describes in his essay Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown. Omitting many details, it refers to the philosopher’s overwhelming feelings related to the acquisition of a new scarlet robe. The philosopher notes the following: “I was the absolute master of my old tunic. I have become a slave to the new one.”

Experts describe the Diderot effect as the result of acquiring a new possession. Sometimes getting something new creates a consumption spiral that leads you to buy even more new things. You do it to offset the other things you have with the aesthetics and quality of the new acquisition.

For example, if you buy the latest television on the market, you’ll have the need to replace your cell phone, computer, tablet, and other products because they’re out of date in comparison with your television. Why we buy things we don’t need is also associated with this effect.

Online shopping: It’s never been easier to buy things

A woman doing her Christmas shopping online.
Today it’s much easier to fall into the temptation of compulsive purchases because there are more ways to do it.

As the researchers point out, online shopping is the trend of the last decade to acquire products. Until not long ago, you had the need to physically move to an establishment in order to make purchases. Today, however, this type of shopping has moved into the background. Now, most large purchases are made online.

This ease of buying things inevitably leads you to add items you don’t need to the virtual cart. Amazon, AliExpress, eBay, Rakuten, and others are experts at bringing you things you don’t need, but their price and ease of access make them irresistible. In a matter of seconds, you can buy almost anything from your cell phone, which encourages the acquisition of more and more things.

We hope that the previous ideas invite you to reflect. If you want to take care of your finances, evaluate how much money you spend on things you don’t really need. Perhaps you can invest your money in more productive things, which offer you a greater practical yield or benefits in the medium and long term.

  • Adamczyk G. Compulsive and compensative buying among online shoppers: An empirical study. PLoS One. 2021;16(6):e0252563. Published 2021 Jun 3.
  • Lorenzen, J. A. Diderot effect. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. 2007.
  • Mikołajczak-Degrauwe K, Brengman M. The influence of advertising on compulsive buying – The role of persuasion knowledge. J Behav Addict. 2014;3(1):65-73.

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