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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2019 Feb 14. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000237. [Epub ahead of print]

The malleable morality of conspicuous consumption.

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Department of Marketing, S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University.


Conspicuous consumption has often been decried as immoral by many philosophers and scholars, yet it is ubiquitous and widely embraced. This research sheds light on the apparent paradox by proposing that the perceived morality of conspicuous consumption is malleable, contingent upon how different moral lenses highlight the different characteristics embedded in the behavior. Utilizing the Moral Foundations Theory, we demonstrate that the individualizing values (i.e., equality and welfare) make people focus on the self-enhancing characteristics of conspicuous consumption, making it seem morally objectionable. However, the binding values (i.e., deference to authority, in-group loyalty, and purity) make people focus on the social identity signaling characteristic of conspicuous consumption, making it seem morally permissible. First, an archival dataset shows that the prevalence of the different moral values predicts per-capita spending on luxury goods across different countries. Then, 6 studies (N = 2903) show that the trait endorsement and the momentary salience of the different moral foundations can influence the moral judgment of conspicuous consumption as well as the propensity to engage in conspicuous consumption. Further, analyses show that the effect of the binding values (individualizing values) is mediated by heightened sensitivity to the social identity signaling (self-enhancing) aspects of conspicuous consumption. Finally, the studies demonstrate that the effect is moderated by the extent of social visibility during consumption. Thus, this research suggests that some moral values can, somewhat paradoxically, increase conspicuous consumption. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).


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