Why You Might Not Want to Ask ‘Who Am I?’

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Introspection, self-knowledge, and self-discovery are generally considered good for oneself. On the consumer level, you’d figure that the better you know yourself, the better you’re able to select the products and services that’ll make you happy and be most worthy of paying for. Indeed, a new research paper states that “self-knowledge can significantly influence individuals’ consumption choices.” But it also looks like the influences of self-discovery on consumer choices is not always positive.

The paper with the rhyming title, “How Asking ‘Who Am I?’ Affects What You Buy,” authored by a team of marketing and business professors at Duke and Cornell, states:

Though self-discovery findings have the potential to help us make more informed decisions, certain individuals may make choices that are inconsistent with their self-discovery findings because they view the new self-knowledge as constraining.

What does that mean? The “certain individuals” here are more independent types who tend to reject constraints and limitations. These people don’t like being defined, which is one of the main goals of self-discovery: to figure out who you are.

In studies, these independents—also called “high reactants”—”reject and make consumption choices inconsistent with it even as they actively seek to learn about themselves,” according to the researchers.

Put more bluntly, the more some people learn about themselves, the more likely they are to make bad consumers decisions—perhaps motivated by the need to reject being defined or limited in any way.

An AskCoupon Sherpa post summed up some of the study’s findings this way:

Despite loving hearing about ourselves, many people find self-discovery to be limiting. They’ve grown up in a society that emphasizes the importance of being an individual. When this is applied to shopping habits, people continue to exercise their independence. For example, when a group of study participants were told they were brand conscious in a first test, they were more likely to select generic products in a second test. Even if they preferred the brand name products, participants rejected them to show they weren’t so easily definable.

Now I’m more confused than ever about why people buy what they buy.

Normally, I’m one to agree with the likes of author Geneen Roth, who in her book Lost and Found stresses the importance of self-awareness, of getting to the heart of why you feel the need to buy new shoes or eat chocolates nonstop. In a Q&A, she said:

Believe it or not, most of us aren’t interested in becoming more aware or conscious about what’s truly compelling us to turn to fast food or buying UGGs. We are afraid that we would find out things we don’t want to know or else, we’d have to give up doing what we believe brings us huge comfort. So we don’t want to know what we don’t know. Starting the process looks like being kind to yourself, and being curious about why you don’t want to know. And telling the truth about what you find out. If you can learn to be curious, kind, and honest, your whole relationship with money will change.

Yet here, at least for certain people, there’s a strong argument that it’s better to just keep your head in the sand—because self-discovery, and finding out who you are and why you do things, may lead to even worse decisions.