When you make a purchase, you're not just satisfying a need: You're making a statement. Consciously or not, your choice of everything from sports cars to sports drinks is a form of self-presentation, a way to demonstrate you possess some desired quality.
But what, exactly, are you trying to project? Recent research reveals that depends, in large part, on your political ideology. It reports conservatives like to convey their dominance, while liberals prefer to communicate their distinctiveness.
Conservatism leads consumers to purchase products "that signal they are better than others," while liberalism spurs them to buy brands "that signal they are unique from others," write Nailya Ordabayeva of Boston College and Daniel Fernandes of the Catholic University of Portugal.
They argue in the Journal of Consumer Research that this reflects right-wingers' endorsement of a hierarchical social structure, in which people get what they deserve. If you equate success with virtue, you want to look successful. If you don't, you're more interested in expressing your individuality.
The researchers demonstrate this dynamic in a series of studies. They begin with a simple one, in which 169 university students who revealed their political ideology were asked to choose between two mug designs. Both featured the university logo, but one added the words "Just Better," while the other stated "Just Different."
They report conservatives were more likely to choose the first mug, while liberals went for the second.
A second study used two well-known brands. Three-hundred and thirty-three adults recruited online were told they could win a $100 gift card from either Ralph Lauren or Urban Outfitters — companies that market their clothes as conveying success or distinctiveness, respectively.
They chose one after filling out a survey that included several indicators of political ideology, as well as the importance they place on quality when buying merchandise.
As expected, conservatives picked the Lauren line, while liberals went for Urban Outfitters. The desire for quality did not play a significant role in their choices.
Still another study featured 320 adults recruited online who were asked to imagine they were "choosing an outfit to wear to a professional networking event." They were asked to consider wearing a red outfit from J. Crew, which would help them stand out, since most people at the gathering were wearing black.
Half of the participants read an article that described red as "the color of luxury," which signaled "one's success, accomplishments, and prosperity." The other half read a different piece that called red "the color of nonconformity," which projected "originality, rebelliousness, and edge."
The results: Conservatives found the red outfit significantly more appealing if they read the first description, but significantly less appealing if they read the second. Liberals thought more highly of it if they read the second, make-me-stand-out description.
"Ideology is a unique predictor of (shopping) behavior, that operates independently from socioeconomic status and income," the researchers conclude.
These findings have practical implications for marketers, as well as political organizers. So if you're standing outside a Target wondering whether a passerby is worth approaching with a petition, size up his or her attire. If it screams, "Look at me — I'm dominant," they're likely to be a conservative. If it proclaims "Look at me — I'm different," you probably have spotted a progressive.
This story originally appeared as How ideology drives our shopping behavior on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.