The Reason You’re in Love With Material Possessions? Loneliness

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People are supposed to love other people (and perhaps, pets and local sports franchises). So why is it that consumers are prone to borderline-romantic infatuations with stuff ranging from cars to computers, and even guns? Why do they go so far as to fawn over these inanimate objects and pamper them with complementary products and services? A new study says loneliness is primarily to blame.

The study, titled “Truly, Madly, Deeply: Consumers in the Throes of Material Possession Love” and authored by a trio of marketing professors for the Journal of Consumer Research, takes a close look at “love-smitten consumers” who are particularly ga-ga over four products: cars, computers, bicycles, and guns. Material possession love, as they define it, involves an attachment that incorporates passion, intimacy, and commitment. Some marriages don’t have all three of those. But the guys who wax their sports cars in the driveway weekly, and who are heartbroken when the bumper is scratched? That’s true love.

To investigate why consumers can become so attached to their possessions, researchers spoke with smitten car owners like Jerry, a 55-year-old empty nester who calls his car “my baby” and talks about his wheels like others might talk about their lovers:

I just don’t want anyone else touching her. I just don’t want anything screwed up. She has a special aftermarket oil filtration system with a reusable filter. Most shops just don’t have the patience to work on a mid-engined car and they don’t know what to do with a reusable stainless-steel oil filter. But I know her and I know how to do it right.

(MORE: Want Happiness? Don’t Buy More Stuff, Go on Vacation)

What’s up with this passion for something that sucks away your money and doesn’t love you back? Through surveys and the work of other researchers, the study points to loneliness as the root of material possession love. Consumers are particularly likely to fall in love with possessions they own for a long time, such as the ones focused on in this study. When someone suffers from “social deficits” (i.e., loneliness), he’s more likely to grow attached to possessions. This sort of love may, in turn, lead to further “deficits,” causing a chicken-egg situation for those in the throes of materialistic love, the authors write:

It is also plausible that an all-consuming love for a possession may in itself create social isolation and loneliness.

(Speaking of chickens, perhaps it’s also loneliness, or some other “deficit,” that could explain the bizarrely passionate attachment so-called “super fans” have for certain fast food chains. The Associated Press found one fan so in love with Chick-fil-A that he’s made the chain’s mascot (a cow) best man at his wedding. Another couple had the Chick-fil-A logo stamped onto their wedding bands.)

(MORE: Do You Love Your Stuff Too Much? Maybe It’s Because No One Loves You)

But it’s not loneliness alone that plays a role in the need to embrace stuff. One’s need to control also seems to be a factor:

Because material objects are not sentient beings, without consciousness and free will, such objects offer consumers relatively predictable and controllable—albeit one-sided—relationships. Therefore, those exhibiting this trait seem more susceptible to possession love.

However you fall in love with a possession, the result is often that caring for that possession winds up costing the owner plenty in terms of time and money:

We found possession love driving nurturing, meaning consumers giving of their time, energy, and other resources to foster their beloved possessions and their relationships with such possessions. Nurturing is accomplished, in part, by buying complementary products and services, in deference to the beloved; thus, the assortment of products and services nurturing beloved possessions represents substantial revenue opportunities for marketers.

The takeaway is that coping with loneliness sure can be expensive.

(MORE: Study: When You Feel Loved, You Love Stuff Less)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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