Tell Me Who Your Friends Are, and I'll Tell You What You Buy

Gleb Tsipursky
We can be influenced to make unwise shopping decisions by our friends.

You might be surprised by the extent to which those around you shape your decisions, especially those to whom you feel close. 

Research on social networks and smoking shows that if your spouse stops smoking, you’re also 67% more likely to stop smoking; if your friend stops smoking, your likelihood of smoking goes down by 36%.

However, our friends influence not only positive tendencies, but also negative ones. If your friend becomes obese, research shows that your chance of becoming obese within a short time period increases by 57%, and if one of your adult siblings becomes obese, your chances of doing so as well grow by 40%. This influence can also negatively impact our shopping decisions, as this real-life example demonstrates.

A Bad Decision Spurred by Friendly Influence

Shanice was so excited to get her new top-of-the-line iPad Pro! She remembered when Jasmine first brought an iPad Pro to their monthly girls night out. Everyone crowded around it, checking out the features, oohing and aahing over the touch screen. Jasmine snapped photos and videos of the group, and the iPad Pro boasted excellent photo quality and crystal-clear audio. 

Jasmine was an early adopter and liked showing off her new toys. Shanice didn’t do the early adopter thing, so she didn’t go for the iPad immediately. However, the next girls night out, both Kiara and MaryAnne joined Jasmine in sporting iPads. They looked like they had so much fun taking sharp photos and videos of the group. Kiara and MaryAnne both reinforced Jasmine’s assessment of the iPad Pro as terrific and lightweight. 

No longer wanting to be left out, Shanice dipped into her savings to spend over a grand and get herself the newest, most souped-up iPad Pro as an early birthday gift. Finally, it arrived. She unwrapped it, set it up, and started playing with it. The others were right about it being fun to take top-notch photos and videos. However, Shanice wasn’t in love with its other features, and it didn’t fit comfortably into her smaller purse. Eventually her iPad Pro found itself untouched for weeks, lying on a bookshelf in her living room. 

That’s the story she told me after I noticed the iPad gathering dust. She told me how she later realized that Jasmine’s influence caused her to make a bad purchase, as her MacBook and iPhone fulfilled all her computing needs, and the iPad proved useless for her. 

We are often unaware of how others shape our decisions—as Shanice was unaware when she bought the iPad Pro. However, there are ways to address the negative impact of this influence so that we make the kind of shopping decisions that best serve our own needs.

How Others Shape Our Decisions

Why do other people’s choices influence us so strongly? The key is in how our mind works. 

Although we like to think of ourselves as rational, cognitive science research shows that in reality, the rational part of our mind—known as the Intentional System of thinking—is like a little rider on top of a huge elephant of emotions and intuitions, which is the Autopilot System of thinking. These gut reactions determine 80-90% of our decision-making process, and we then come up with reasons to justify our emotional drivers. In other words, our instinct is to not be rational, but to be rationalizing, to seek warm and comfortable lies rather than the cold and hard truth.

These instincts stem from the ancestral savanna, when we had an evolutionary advantage from relying on these intuitions rather than figuring out the facts. Our ancestors had very scarce resources and couldn’t save additional resources. For example, if they picked lots of berries and couldn’t eat them immediately, the berries rotted. That problem helps explain why we have such a strong desire to eat as much sugar as possible, despite it being so bad for us in the modern world.

Our Strong Tribal Instincts

In those days, we lived in small tribes, and depended on our tribe to survive. If we got kicked out of our tribe, we would die. That made a strong tribal instinct critical for our survival. Such tribalism resulted in judgment errors—what scholars call cognitive biases—such as the halo effect. In this cognitive bias, if we have a strong liking for one characteristic of a person, usually because that characteristic is similar to an important element of ourselves, we will tend to rate all other aspects of that person higher than we should.

Another aspect of tribalism involves competition within the tribe itself, to make sure that we are at the top of the tribe’s totem pole. Those at the top got access to the best resources of the tribe, such as first dibs on any food. One dangerous judgment error that results from such tribal social status competition is the social comparison bias, where we feel a desire to compete with and win over those who we perceive as better than ourselves and thus higher on our tribal group’s hierarchy.

We are the descendants of those people who survived in the ancestral savanna environment. Our emotions, intuitions, and gut reactions carry into today’s world all the tendencies that helped our ancestors survive the savanna environment. Unfortunately, in our modern society, these instincts often steer us in the wrong direction. 

Our Friends Shop and We Follow

Our Autopilot System reactions help when those in our social circle do things that are beneficial for us, such as quitting smoking, because we then have a halo effect around not buying cigarettes to emulate the quitters. However, this same system hurts us when those we perceive as part of our small-knit tribe behave in a harmful manner, like when they stop exercising and consume too much junk food, growing obese. The actions of those tribal members gives us permission to do the same, because obesity-centered negative feelings—emotions that drive us to go to the gym and buy healthy food only—get weakened. As a result, our primitive urge to eat as much sugar as possible wins out over our civilized desire to maintain our health in an environment with an overabundance of sugary foods provided by food manufacturers and lack of physical activity. 

The same influence—including the hurt/help effect—applies to shopping decisions, such as Shanice wasting money on the iPad Pro. She emulated those she saw as members of her tribe, namely her small-knit group of girlfriends. Yet, she didn’t consider whether the iPad Pro would serve her personal needs and preferences, given that she only carries small purses and that her computing needs—although not her tribal needs for social belonging—were fully satisfied by the MacBook and iPhone. 

Keeping up with the Joneses

You might have heard the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” as referring to our desire to maintain a standard of living comparable to those around us, such as our neighbors, who we consider to be on a similar social level. Popularized by an early 20th century comic strip called “Keeping up with the Joneses,” this idiom points to an important aspect of our tribal shopping behavior. Our instincts drive us to improve our social status, and the social comparison bias in particular causes us to try to outcompete others in our tribal group through our shopping. Scholars term such status-driven shopping “conspicuous consumption,” referring to buying products not primarily for their actual practical use, but for the prestige value of the purchase in raising the buyer higher on the social hierarchy. 

That’s what Shanice did when she bought the best-available iPad Pro. She hoped to get ahead in the little social status game played by Jasmine, whose iPad Pro, although new, didn’t have all the bells and whistles available. Unfortunately for Shanice, spending over $1,000 on her iPad for the prestige value did not win her a higher place on the hierarchy, as the excitement over the iPad faded among those in her girls night out circle. Likewise, she found that she did not have a pragmatic use for the iPad. 

Stepping away from Shanice for a minute, what about online shopping and virtual communities? Similar tribal impulses apply and explain people’s purchasing choices. Scholars found that virtual communities have a significant impact on the shopping choices of their members. The key mechanism through which such influence occurs is social identification, meaning the extent to which members of these virtual communities perceive the community to be their tribe. 

Online shopping involves an inherently higher degree of risk than in-person shopping, since you can’t actually see and touch the product that you’re buying. These virtual communities, and other online resources that compare and review products, provide trustworthy, third-party sources of information on the quality of online shopping experiences. Such information, according to research, offers a way to overcome the trust barrier for online shopping. To address the issue of trust, research shows that it’s important for the source of information to be seen as credible, and the halo effect for members of one’s perceived tribe increases source credibility.

Making Better Shopping Decisions

So how can you avoid the kind of bad decision made by Shanice, or by those who chose to buy junk food when their friends grow obese? Get better friends! I’m joking, but only in part. You know how parents always warn their kids about not hanging out with the wrong crowd? They’re not wrong.

Knowing about how those around you powerfully influence your day-to-day choices—in shopping and all other life areas—should hopefully inspire you to be more intentional about the company you keep. Make new friends who are not like you, but who are like the person you want to become in the future. Let’s say you want to have a better fashion sense; if so, make friends with someone whose style you admire. Perhaps you want to make slower and more intentional shopping choices, while getting rid of material goods you don’t need. Making friends with a minimalist lifestyle mentality can help. The same applies to joining virtual communities: if you want to become a gardner and learn about what equipment and plants to purchase, join an online gardening group dedicated to your geographical area, so that they know what grows best in your locale.

You can lead your existing friends into making better choices to help you meet your goals. If you want to make more healthy food purchases, meet with your friends at a salad restaurant instead of a donut shop or a bar. You can take the lead among your friendship circle in making sustainable shopping decisions, such as buying Fair Trade goods. 

Finally, you might consider spending less time with the “wrong crowd.” If your friends like to spend time shopping at the mall and you want to conserve your money, meet with them less often. Sometimes, it might mean ending the relationship. For instance, if your existing friends refuse to go anywhere but a bar, and you want to avoid being around alcohol, you should consider finding other friends. 

In addition, watch out for new fads sweeping through your friends and influencing you to make bad shopping decisions. Make a commitment to yourself to avoid buying anything for its status value, focusing instead on only making purchases that are actually necessary to addressing your existing needs. 

Avoid dangerous decision disasters by getting the article author's new book, Never Go With Your Gut

Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a writer for Top10 and a scholar of behavioral economics and neuroscience. Called the 'Office Whisperer' by The New York Times, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders improve retention and productivity as the CEO of the consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He's also the best-selling author of several books, and was featured in over 750 titles in CBS News, Time, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Inc. Magazine, and CNBC.