Researchers find loneliness could contribute to over-spending, impulsive purchases

Published: Nov. 26, 2019 at 4:48 PM CST
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With the busiest time of year for shopping approaching, researchers at the University of Iowa say people who are lonely are more likely to spend spontaneously.

Alice Wang, a professor and research fellow with the University of Iowa, has been researching different aspects of loneliness for more than 10 years. She said people who are feeling lonely are more likely to buy things impulsively to feel a level of satisfaction.

Wang said it is because people can be focused on the things they do not have, like friendships, it can make them feel like they need to buy something to fill a void. She explained it is not a matter of how many friends someone has, but the quality of those relationships.

"It varies by person, everybody grows up in a different environment," Wang said. "You might need three, I might need two. So we're all different. But to the extent that an individual is feeling subjectively isolated, that is lonely."

Wang explained it's that feeling of loneliness that could translate to overspending and overeating.

"In one of the papers, we found when people feel they need a specific type of social relationship, but they're not having enough, that's when they engage in impulsive behaviors, like unplanned purchases or unplanned eating," Wang said. "So I think it's related to the holiday season not only in terms of how much we buy but how much we eat."

Wang said there are two types of relationships: social relationships like friends, colleagues, etc. and intimate relationships like family, or a significant other. She said there are circumstances when people need both, and when they do not have both, it can prove problematic.

"We found under certain circumstances, when you need a particular type of relationship, having the other type of relationship does not substitute what you need, and hence does not reduce your impulsive behaviors."

Wang said she has already published a number of papers from her research, that included both experimental research and reviewing that done by others.