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I am what I do, not what I have: The differential centrality of experiential and material purchases to the self.

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What kinds of purchases do the most to make us happy? Previous research (Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003) indicates that experiences, such as vacations and concerts, are more likely to do so than material possessions, such as clothes and electronic gadgets. The present research was designed to explore 1 potential explanation for this result, namely, that experiences tend to be more closely associated with the self than possessions. The authors first show that people tend to think of their experiential purchases as more connected to the self than their possessions. Compared with their material purchases, participants drew their experiential purchases physically closer to the self (Study 1), were more likely to mention them when telling their life story (Study 2), and felt that a purchase described in terms of its experiential, rather than its material, qualities would overlap more with their sense of who they are (Study 4). Participants also felt that knowing a person's experiential purchases, compared with their material purchases, would yield greater insight into that person's true self (Studies 3A-3C). The authors then show that the tendency to cling more closely to cherished experiential memories is connected to the greater satisfaction people derive from experiences than possessions (Study 5).
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I Am What I Do, Not What I Have: The Differential Centrality of
Experiential and Material Purchases to the Self
Travis J. Carter
University of Chicago Thomas Gilovich
Cornell University
What kinds of purchases do the most to make us happy? Previous research (Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Van
Boven & Gilovich, 2003) indicates that experiences, such as vacations and concerts, are more likely to
do so than material possessions, such as clothes and electronic gadgets. The present research was
designed to explore 1 potential explanation for this result, namely, that experiences tend to be more
closely associated with the self than possessions. The authors first show that people tend to think of their
experiential purchases as more connected to the self than their possessions. Compared with their material
purchases, participants drew their experiential purchases physically closer to the self (Study 1), were
more likely to mention them when telling their life story (Study 2), and felt that a purchase described in
terms of its experiential, rather than its material, qualities would overlap more with their sense of who
they are (Study 4). Participants also felt that knowing a person’s experiential purchases, compared with
their material purchases, would yield greater insight into that person’s true self (Studies 3A–3C). The
authors then show that the tendency to cling more closely to cherished experiential memories is
connected to the greater satisfaction people derive from experiences than possessions (Study 5).
Keywords: experiential purchases, materialism, happiness, consumer-behavior, identity
“Look, nobody takes this more seriously than me. That condo was my
life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not
just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!”
—Edward Norton, Fight Club
Early in the 1999 film Fight Club (Linson, Chaffin, Bell, &
Fincher, 1999), starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, all of the
protagonist’s material possessions, along with a significant chunk
of his apartment building, are destroyed in a tremendous gas
explosion. When the police insinuate that he deliberately caused
the explosion, Norton’s character offers the defense quoted above.
The sentiment that one’s material possessions are important to
self-definition is one that people frequently embrace (Belk, 1988),
and it lends credence to the above defense—why would anyone
deliberately destroy all of their worldly possessions? But the
statement, although passionately spoken, is intended to be ironic;
the film itself is devoted to refuting the idea that possessions make
any real contribution to a meaningful life. Indeed, the next line of
dialog, delivered as a voiceover, has Norton’s character congrat-
ulating himself on having convincingly said something so ludi-
crous.
The present studies were designed to examine a similar point
(albeit one decidedly less violent and subversive) by building on
previous findings that experiences tend to provide more enduring
satisfaction than material possessions (Carter & Gilovich, 2010;
Rosenzweig & Gilovich, 2012; Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003; see
also Nicolao, Irwin, & Goodman, 2009). One of the explanations
that has been offered for the greater happiness and satisfaction that
people derive from experiential purchases—one that has been
offered in the absence of supporting evidence—is that experiences
come to constitute a greater part of the self than do material
possessions. However much people might try to advance their
public image or alter their sense of self through conspicuous
consumption (Frank, 1999; Griskevicius et al., 2007; Heffetz &
Frank, 2011), their possessions nonetheless remain “out there,”
separate from the self. A person’s experiences, in contrast, live on
“in here,” in their memories and narratives. They become parts of
our autobiography and, hence, part of us. We are quite literally the
sum total of our experiences. We are not, however materialistic we
might be, the sum total of our possessions. The present research
examines this contention empirically–whether experiences are in-
deed more closely connected to the self and whether this is part of
the reason that people derive greater and more enduring satisfac-
tion from their experiential purchases. Although this is not the only
mechanism responsible for the greater hedonic value people derive
from their experiences (see Carter & Gilovich, 2010), it is one that
has yet to be subject to empirical test.
Given the vast differences in people’s interest in materialistic
consumption, it is likely that personality variables related to ma-
terialism, such as that measured by the Material Values Scale
This article was published Online First February 27, 2012.
Travis J. Carter, Center for Decision Research, University of Chicago
Booth School of Business; Thomas Gilovich, Department of Psychology,
Cornell University.
This article is based on portions of Travis J. Carter’s doctoral disserta-
tion. This research was supported by National Science Foundation Re-
search Grants SES0542486 and SES0922323 to Thomas Gilovich. We
thank Suzanne Baumgarten, Nathan Greene, Christina Hung, Leslie Jaw,
Justin Landy, David Mozdzen, Catherine Schrage, Samantha Stein, Allie
Strauss, and Rachel Weinstock for their help collecting and coding the
data.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Travis J.
Carter, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Center for De-
cision Research, 5807 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637. E-mail:
Travis.Carter@ChicagoBooth.edu
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology © 2012 American Psychological Association
2012, Vol. 102, No. 6, 1304–1317 0022-3514/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0027407
1304
(MVS; Richins & Dawson, 1992), might moderate the proposed
tendency for people’s experiences to constitute a greater part of
their self-image. Indeed, Nicolao et al. (2009) obtained evidence
that materialism moderates the relationship between purchase type
and satisfaction; participants who scored low on the MVS
were more satisfied with their positive experiences than their
positive possessions, but participants who scored high on the MVS
were equally satisfied with both. To explore the impact of a
materialistic orientation further, we measured participants’ mate-
rialism in most of the studies reported here.
Definitional Issues
One of the thorniest issues in this area of inquiry is the difficulty
of defining and distinguishing material and experiential purchases.
Following previous research (Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Van Boven
& Gilovich, 2003), the intention behind the purchase provides a
wedge. Material purchases are made with the intention of owner-
ship and possession. They are typically physical objects, such as
cars, clothing, jewelry, and various types of electronic gadgets,
which endure in one’s possession for an extended period of time.
Experiential purchases, in contrast, are made with the intention of
gaining some experience. They are intangible and impermanent, in
the way of vacations, meals at restaurants, and music and theatre
performances, and they endure primarily in memory. Crudely,
material possessions are part of the manufacturing economy; ex-
periences are part of the service economy. One purchases an
experience to do and a material possession to have. Although the
borderline between the two categories can be imprecise, with some
purchases falling somewhere in the vague middle of the material–
experiential spectrum, the categories nonetheless appear to be
useful and readily intuited by participants (see Carter & Gilovich,
2010).
It should also be noted that material and materialistic purchases
are, at least in theory, distinct concepts. Material purchases are the
tangible objects purchased with an eye toward ownership, as
described above. They exist on the opposite end of the spectrum
from experiential purchases. Materialistic purchases, on the other
hand, are purchases made with the intent of signaling wealth or
status, either to others or to oneself. Materialistic people are those
who (a) tend to make materialistic purchases, (b) derive much of
their happiness from signaling their wealth, (c) measure their
success by their wealth, and (d) define themselves and others based
on their purchases, status, and wealth (Richins & Dawson, 1992).
Accordingly, even some experiential purchases can be consid-
ered materialistic. Extravagant spa vacations and lavish parties
signal status just as effectively as a Phillipe Patek watch or a
luxury automobile. Conversely, a utilitarian material good (e.g., a
coffee mug) is unlikely to be seen as materialistic. This is not to
say that the price tag is the primary determinant of whether
something is materialistic or not. An audiophile might buy a very
expensive high-fidelity stereo system, but if the intention behind
the purchase is to satisfy a well-honed ear, it would not be
considered materialistic. In contrast, if the intention is to outdo or
impress one’s friends, then the purchase is firmly in materialistic
territory. Similarly, a restful but expensive beach vacation can be
just that: a chance to recharge the batteries while relaxing far from
the stresses and responsibilities of home and work life. It only
becomes materialistic when it becomes ostentatious, when the
additional utility one derives from the extra expense is less about
the experience itself and more about the signal it sends (e.g., an
oenological dilettante ordering a staggeringly expensive bottle of
wine).
Although material and materialistic purchases are theoretically
distinct, they are often confounded in practice (Van Boven, Camp-
bell, & Gilovich, 2010), for the simple reason that material pos-
sessions often serve the materialistic motive better than experi-
ences. That is, because physical objects are more visible, they can
better signal one’s status and prosperity. This issue is discussed in
more detail in the General Discussion.
The Role of Memories in Defining the Self
What constitutes “the self” has been of interest to scholars
throughout the ages, with different accounts focused on very
different features, some social, some cultural, and some individual
(e.g., Brewer, 1991; Markus, 1977; Sedikides & Brewer, 2001).
Nearly all accounts, however, grant importance to a person’s
memories of past experiences in his or her sense of self (see
Kihlstrom, Beer, & Klein, 2003; McAdams, 2001; A. E. Wilson &
Ross, 2003). For example, some philosophers have described the
self as a continuous stream of autobiographical memories, subject
to frequent reflection over time (e.g., Grice, 1941; Locke, 1690/
2000). Psychologists approaching the subject from a social cogni-
tion perspective have tended to focus on the self as a memory
structure and have emphasized the bidirectional nature of the
relationship between memory and the self-concept (e.g., Green-
wald, 1981; Kihlstrom et al., 2003). That is, memories constitute a
big part of the self-concept, but some concept of a “self” is
necessary to give those memories coherence and to organize them
as elements of a single entity, oneself (e.g., James, 1890; Klein,
2001).
Both elements of declarative memory—episodic and seman-
tic—constitute important elements of the self-concept (Klein,
2001). Semantic memory, the storehouse of general knowledge
about the world, is where summary beliefs about the self reside,
such as the belief that one is an accomplished tennis player, the life
of the party, or a hopeless romantic. Episodic memory, our first-
hand recollections of experiences, constitutes the raw material that
sparks and confirms such summary assessments of the self. Our
previous experiences on the tennis court link to the node in
semantic memory representing one’s tennis ability, and when that
ability is queried, those episodes are brought to bear as evidence to
support that summary assessment. New experiences are used to
revise the semantically based self-concept, but such episodic mem-
ories are subject to bias in both encoding and retrieval in light of,
and in the service of, broader self-schemas (e.g., Markus, 1977)
and generalized beliefs about one’s abilities in a particular domain
(Ehrlinger & Dunning, 2003).
It follows from this perspective that experiences constitute a
more important part of the self-concept than possessions. Experi-
ences, once enacted and “consumed,” persist essentially as epi-
sodic memories that, by their very nature, are autobiographical and
thus connected to the self-concept. Possessions, in contrast, reside
primarily outside of memory, as tangible objects. One’s memories
of a possession, as well as the use of possessions as an “extended
self” (Belk, 1988), can and do indeed connect material possessions
to the self but, as we demonstrate, to a much lesser degree.
1305
CENTRALITY OF EXPERIENCES TO THE SELF
Self-Serving Biases, Satisfaction, and Regret
Why might experiences become especially satisfying as a result
of their closer connection to the self? We believe there are several
reasons. First, as part of the self, memories of purchased experi-
ences are likely to be embellished as a consequence of the same
sorts of self-serving biases that allow people to maintain positive
self-views (e.g., Dunning, 2005), particularly over time. Indeed,
people tend to take a “rosy view” of experiences over time, even
when the actual experience is fraught with decidedly disappointing
moments (Mitchell, Thompson, Peterson, & Cronk, 1997; Sutton,
1992). Evaluating the quality of one’s experiences is, in essence,
evaluating aspects of oneself.
Second, the intangible, subjective nature of experiences makes it
easier to find positive dimensions of evaluation. Just as people take
advantage of ambiguity in trait definitions to evaluate themselves
highly (Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989), people can
take advantage of the ambiguity of most experiences to arrive at
favorable evaluations. A rainy vacation might have led to the
cancelation of a highly anticipated activity, but it might also have
allowed a unique opportunity to bond with family and friends,
even if it takes a while to come to that realization. A crash-prone
laptop, in contrast, leaves little room for positive reinterpretation.
Some latitude for interpretation is essential to the process of
motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990) that serves the desire to protect
and enhance the self (e.g., Dunning, Leuenberger, & Sherman,
1995).
Third, purchases seen as accomplishing a higher order goal
typically take on special importance and are tied even closer to the
self. Because experiences are thought of relatively abstractly, in
terms of their purpose and what they accomplish, they are more
likely than possessions to be construed at a high level (Trope &
Liberman, 2003).
The incorporation of experiences into the self-concept might
also have implications for the experience of regret and dissatisfac-
tion. People tend to be dissatisfied with purchases that do not meet
expectations and to regret purchases that are surpassed by uncho-
sen options (Bell, 1982, 1985; Loomes & Sugden, 1982; Tsiros &
Mittal, 2000; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 1999; Zeelenberg et al., 1998).
And people may be reluctant to make unfavorable comparisons to
unchosen options (i.e., feel regret) if the purchase they made is
now a part of the self, for much the same reasons that people tend
to reduce the amount of regret they experience over time for
actions they have taken (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994, 1995; Gilov-
ich, Medvec, & Kahneman, 1998). Note that this reluctance to
make unfavorable comparisons is less likely to apply to material
purchases than experiential purchases, because the former are less
closely aligned with the self. In fact, other research suggests that
people’s most common regrets about material goods are mistakes
of action: buying things they now wish they hadn’t bought. Their
most common regrets about experiential purchase decisions are
mistakes of inaction: not purchasing experiences they now wish
they had pursued (Rosenzweig & Gilovich, 2012).
In sum, there are a variety of reasons to expect experiential
purchases to be integrated more tightly to the self-concept and to
expect this difference to constitute an important reason why ex-
periences tend to be more satisfying than possessions. The research
reported here explores this contention empirically, first by exam-
ining whether experiences are indeed more closely incorporated
into the self-concept than possessions (Studies 1 and 2). We then
examine whether knowledge of a person’s experiences is consid-
ered a clearer window into their self-concept than knowledge of
their possessions (Studies 3A–3C). Next, we explore the viability
of some potential alternative explanations by examining whether
the very same purchase tends to be seen as closer to the self when
its experiential features rather than its material features are high-
lighted (Study 4). Then, in Study 5 we attempt to replicate the
previous finding that experiences tend to be more satisfying than
possessions and examine whether the greater satisfaction people
derive from experiential purchases is partly attributable to their
tighter connection to the self.
Study 1: Diagramming the Self
How closely do people associate their material and experiential
purchases with their self-concept? Study 1 was designed to exam-
ine whether, in an almost literal sense, people think of their
experiences as closer to the self than their possessions. The pro-
cedure borrows from work on different conceptions of the self in
independent and interdependent cultures. To illustrate the idea that
people in interdependent cultures tend to define themselves more
in terms of their social and familial relationships than people in
independent cultures, Markus and Kitayama (1991) represented
the self and various significant others using a Venn diagram (see
Figure 1 in Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The diagram depicts the
self as a large circle at the center, with family and friends repre-
sented as smaller peripheral circles. Because the self is defined
more in terms of relationships in interdependent than independent
cultures, a person’s family and friends are depicted as overlapping
more with the self circle in interdependent cultures than in inde-
pendent cultures. A similar logic should apply with respect to
purchases that are seen as more or less connected to the self.
Accordingly, participants in this study were asked to describe
several material and experiential purchases and then to depict their
connections to the self using a Venn diagram, with the distance
between each purchase and the self representing perceived close-
ness and importance. We predicted that people would place their
experiential purchases closer to the self than their material pur-
chases.
Method
Participants. Fifty-three Cornell University students (31 fe-
male, 21 male, 1 unspecified) completed the survey in exchange
for a candy bar or as a filler survey during an unrelated experiment.
Although one participant did not complete the materialism mea-
sure, her data are only excluded from the analyses involving that
measure. Including or excluding her data from the other analyses
does not alter the direction or significance of any of the findings.
Procedure. Participants were first asked to recall eight sig-
nificant purchases they had made in the past 5 years (four material
possessions and four experiences) and to list each purchase and its
price. Spaces for the four material and four experiential purchases
were provided on the same page, and participants were free to fill
them out in whatever order they wished. They were then asked to
represent each purchase as a circle, and to draw it in proximity
to a central “self” circle to depict how close that purchase seemed
to their “sense of self.” As an example, participants saw a repre-
1306 CARTER AND GILOVICH
sentation of how one might diagram one’s familial relationships,
with some closer and some further away from the central self-
circle (shown in Figure 1). Finally, participants completed the
revised 15-item version of the MVS (Richins, 2004), a common
measure of materialistic value orientation.
Results and Discussion
For each purchase, we measured the distance between the center
of the central self-circle and the center of each purchase circle in
millimeters and then averaged the distances for each purchase
type. Because the circles had to be large enough to accommodate
the name of the purchase, which varied considerably in length, the
circles also varied considerably in size. We thus used the center of
each circle, rather than the closest edge, to prevent any artifacts
resulting from any asymmetry in the size of participants’ material
and experiential circles.
As predicted, participants plotted their experiential purchases
closer to the self-circle (M30.0 mm, SD 8.54) than their
material purchases (M34.0 mm, SD 12.73), paired t(52)
2.48, p.02, d0.340. However, this effect was qualified by a
significant interaction with participant gender, F(1, 50) 4.25,
p.05,
p
2
.08. There was a pronounced difference in how
closely the experiential and material purchases were depicted
relative to the self-circle by female participants (Ms29.2 vs.
35.8; SDs7.0 and 14.0), t(30) 3.18, p.01, d0.57, but
no difference among male participants (Ms31.6 vs. 31.5; SDs
10.4 and 10.0; t1). Because this gender difference was not
expected and, more important, does not replicate in the subsequent
studies reported here, we defer a discussion of its significance to
the general discussion.
Participants’ experiential purchases were, on average, margin-
ally more expensive than their material purchases,
1
t(52) 1.92,
p.10, and so we performed a follow-up regression analysis to
control for the impact of price on participants’ depictions. Because
there were multiple distances for each participant, the data were
not independent, and so we performed a separate regression for
each participant, predicting the distance of each purchase from the
self-circle using the type of purchase (material or experiential) and
the price of the purchase. This analysis revealed that the tendency
of participants to draw their experiences closer to the self was not
due to their experiences having greater monetary value: The mean
coefficient of purchase type was significantly different from zero
in the predicted direction (M
beta
.26, SD .81), t(52) 2.33,
p.03, whereas the mean coefficient of price was not (M
beta
–.08, SD .40), t(52) –1.49, p.14. Here, too, the effect was
pronounced for women (M
beta
.40, SD .83) but absent for men
(M
beta
–.01, SD .71).
The MVS did not correlate significantly with how close to the
self-circle participants tended to draw their experiential purchases
or their material purchases (both ps.10). However, when we
combined the two average distance measures into an index of the
tendency to place material purchases further from the self than
experiences, we found that this index (a simple difference score)
was significantly negatively correlated with the MVS, r(52)
–.32, p.05. Participants who depicted their experiences as
physically closer to their “self” than material possessions also
reported that their possessions were less central to their lives and
happiness on a validated personality measure of materialism. How-
ever, it is important to note that, this correlation notwithstanding,
the tendency to consider experiences as closer to the self than
possessions was not reversed for those high in materialism. Indeed,
over 70% of the participants drew their experiences closer than
their possessions, and the trend we observed did not reverse for
those who scored above the midpoint on the MVS (n18). These
participants, who consider possessions to be extremely important
in their lives, nevertheless depicted their possessions and experi-
ences at an equal distance from the self (t1).
This study thus provides straightforward evidence that people
do indeed consider their experiential purchases to be closer to their
self-concept than their material purchases. Although the result was
limited to female participants in this study (but not in the studies
to follow), it was not qualified by the cost of the purchases they
considered. Also, although this difference was negatively corre-
lated with materialism, even the most staunch materialists did not
place their possessions closer to their self-concept than their ex-
periences. Thus, even if materialists are making material purchases
with an eye toward managing their identity, their experiences end
up being just as large a part of that identity.
Study 2: Telling One’s Life Story
Participants in Study 1 were confronted with a novel task—to
literally map their purchases onto their self-concept in physical
space. To make sure that the results obtained in that study are not
limited to such unorthodox assessments, in Study 2 we had par-
ticipants engage in a considerably more familiar activity: talking
about themselves. That is, participants were asked to recall and
describe several material and experiential purchases and then to
tell their life story, a form of self-definition crucial to one’s overall
identity (McAdams, 2001), incorporating some of the purchases
they had previously described. We expected participants to incor-
porate more experiential than material purchases into their life
narratives.
Method
Ninety-one Cornell University undergraduates (72 female, 18
male, 1 unspecified) completed this study online, along with a
1
Because of significant skew, the cost of each purchase was subjected
to a natural log-transformation in all analyses. This procedure was followed
in all subsequent studies as well.
Figure 1. Example diagram given to participants.
1307
CENTRALITY OF EXPERIENCES TO THE SELF
series of unrelated surveys, in exchange for course credit. Partic-
ipants were first asked to recall 10 significant purchases they had
made over the course of their lives—five material possessions and
five experiences. To avoid any ambiguity in data coding, there
were 10 entry fields, clearly marked as to whether a material or
experiential purchase should be listed. Participants were asked to
provide a brief description of each purchase and its cost.
One participant described five material purchases but no expe-
riences and therefore was excluded from the analysis. Although
other participants occasionally omitted one or two purchases, all
remaining participants described at least three purchases in each
category. Excluding participants who made any omissions of any
sort changes neither the direction nor significance of the results.
After listing their material and experiential purchases, partici-
pants were asked to provide a narrative description of their lives.
Specifically, participants were given the following instructions:
In the box below, write out a summary of your “life story.” Who are
you? How did you get to be the way you are? What are you and your
life about? We’d like you to incorporate some of the purchases that
you listed above in your life narrative, but not all of them (of course).
Choose whichever ones you feel it best to include, but be sure to
include at least one.
Participants then completed the MVS (Richins & Dawson,
1992). One participant did not complete the MVS, and so her data
were not included in the analyses using that measure. Including or
excluding her other data does not change any of the findings.
Results
Two independent raters read each participant’s life narrative and
coded whether each purchase listed earlier was included as part of
the narrative (coded as 1) or not (coded as 0). Both raters were
blind as to which purchases were listed as examples of material or
experiential purchases, but only one of the raters was blind to the
hypothesis. Because their ratings corresponded very highly, agree-
ing on 95% of the cases, awareness of the hypotheses does not
appear to have tainted the nonblind coder’s ratings. As a precau-
tion, a third coder, who was also blind to the hypothesis, resolved
all of the cases in which the two main coders disagreed. We then
calculated for each participant the proportion of material and
experiential purchases that were included in his or her life narra-
tive. As predicted, participants included more of their experiential
purchases (M.42, SD .28) than their material purchases (M
.22, SD .24), paired t(89) 5.94, p.001, d0.626. This
effect was not qualified by gender, and the effect was significant
for both men and women when analyzed separately (both ts2.2,
ps.05).
Because there was a marginally significant difference in how
expensive the material and experiential purchases tended to be
(Mdn
exp
$500 vs. Mdn
mat
$250),
2
paired t(83) 1.83, p.07,
we conducted a supplementary regression analysis to control for
price. Specifically, a separate regression was performed for each
participant, predicting each purchase’s inclusion in the life narra-
tive using the type of purchase (material or experiential) and the
price of the purchase. The average coefficient for price was sig-
nificantly different from zero (M
beta
.11, SD .28), t(81)
3.68, p.001, indicating that participants were more likely to
mention expensive purchases. This did not, however, explain the
greater inclusion of experiences in participants’ life narratives. The
average coefficient of purchase type was significantly different
from zero in the predicted direction (M
beta
.22, SD .57),
t(81) 3.28, p.001. That is, controlling for each purchase’s
cost, participants were more likely to mention experiential than
material purchases in their life narratives.
In addition to price, there are a number of possible dimensions
on which participants’ material and experiential purchases might
have differed. That is, participants may have used fundamentally
different criteria when searching their memory for experiential and
material purchases, differences that might not be reflected in price.
Most important, participants may have recalled, even within the
same price range, more exciting and consequential experiential
purchases (e.g., a trip to Barcelona) than material purchases (e.g.,
a set of snow tires). And perhaps it is this difference, rather than
whether the purchase was an experience or a material good, that
was responsible for the observed difference in what participants
chose to include in their life narratives. To examine this possibil-
ity, we had a pair of raters, blind to the hypothesis of the study, rate
each purchase on three additional dimensions. First, they provided
a simple dichotomous judgment as to whether it was a “big” or
“small” purchase. Their ratings agreed 80.2% of the time; dis-
agreements were averaged, creating a 3-point scale with a middle
category of, in essence, “medium” purchases. Second, they rated
the extent to which the purchase was substantial (e.g., laptop, trip
to China) or trivial (e.g., book, meal at the student union) on a
7-point scale (1 trivial,7substantial; rater reliability r.82).
Finally, they rated how much satisfaction the “average person”
would derive from the purchase (1 little satisfaction,7a great
deal of satisfaction; rater reliability r.75).
To ensure that our findings were not simply the result of
participants selectively recalling highly satisfying experiences and
only moderately satisfying possessions, we ran three separate
regressions for each participant, using purchase type and one of
these three dimensions to predict whether the purchase was in-
cluded in the narrative. As expected, participants did indeed
choose to include in their narratives purchases that were bigger
(M
beta
.09, SD .16), more substantial (M
beta
.11, SD .18),
and something that the average person would find more satisfying
(M
beta
.11, SD .20), all ts(83) 5.00, ps.001. However,
this (predictable) effect did not account for the effect material/
experiential purchase on what participants chose to mention in
their narratives. Purchase type remained a significant predictor
when controlling for purchase’s size (M
beta
.16, SD .41),
t(83) 3.66, p.001; substantiality (M
beta
.13, SD .40),
t(83) 2.93, p.01; and normative satisfaction (M
beta
.10,
SD .45), t(83) 1.95, p.05. Clearly then, there is something
unique about the material/experiential dimension that determines,
above and beyond a variety of other factors such as expense,
“bigness,” and satisfaction, how central they are to a person’s
identity.
2
Some purchases were not accompanied by a quantifiable cost (e.g., “a
lot”), which accounts for the lowered degrees of freedom. These purchases
were also excluded from the within-subject regression analysis, although
no participant’s data had to be discarded as a result of a large number of
price omissions.
1308 CARTER AND GILOVICH
Participants’ overall MVS scores did not correlate significantly
with their tendency to include either their material or experiential
purchases in their life narratives (both ps.2). However, the
life-centrality subscale of the MVS was (marginally) negatively
correlated with the likelihood of including their experiential pur-
chases in their life narratives (r–.19, p.07).
3
Although those
who consider material possessions to be more central to their lives
were less likely to include experiential purchases in their life
narratives, it is important to note that the main effect reported
earlier was not reversed among these participants. Looking just at
those who scored above the midpoint on the life-centrality sub-
scale (n39), even these participants were more likely to include
experiences (M.35, SD .29) than possessions (M.26, SD
.28) in their life narratives, although not significantly so, paired
t(37) 1.39. p.17, d0.227.
Discussion
Participants in this study were more likely to draw upon their
experiential purchases than their material purchases when telling
their life story. This effect held when cost and various other
measures of the significance of the purchases were held constant.
Even materialists exhibited this tendency, although not to a statis-
tically significant degree.
One possible concern about the paradigms used in Studies 1 and
2 is that participants were required to list a number of material and
experiential purchases, and there is no obvious way to determine
whether the purchases participants described are representative of
the purchases that they, or people in general, tend to make.
Perhaps, in other words, participants were not “randomly sam-
pling” from the population of purchases they have made over the
course of their lives when generating examples of each type. To
address this concern, we utilize two different paradigms in the next
four studies, neither of which involves participants’ recall of
specific material and experiential purchases. One paradigm, used
in Studies 3A–3C, investigates whether people believe that one can
learn more about a person’s true self (their own or someone else’s)
by knowing about their material purchases or their experiential
purchases.
Studies 3A–3C: Need-to-Know Basis
In Studies 3A–3C, we wanted to examine the robustness of the
connection between experiences and identity by using a very
different measure of identity. Specifically, we asked participants to
consider whether knowing about a person’s material or experien-
tial purchases would give someone else greater insight into the true
nature of the person in question. If people are, in fact, the sum total
of their experiences, then knowledge of one’s experiences should
be thought to yield greater insight.
Study 3A
In Study 3A, we asked participants whether a stranger would
know more about their true self as a result of knowing their
material or experiential purchase history. We also examined
whether the sense that experiential purchases are more diagnostic
of the self is related to the satisfaction people derive from specific
material and experiential purchases.
Method.
Participants and procedure. One hundred twenty-one partic-
ipants (65 female) were recruited at Chicago’s Museum of Science
and Industry to participate in a short survey about consumer
purchases in exchange for candy. Participants represented a broad
age range (min 18, max 72, M37.79, SD 14.90) and
hailed predominantly from the American Midwest, but with some
visiting from as far away as Alaska and Switzerland.
Materials. The survey first described to participants the cat-
egories of material and experiential purchases, and then asked
them to imagine two people: “one of whom knew about all of your
material purchases (Person M), and the other knew about all of
your experiential purchases (Person E), but neither knew anything
else about you. Which person would better know the real you,
your true, essential self?” Participants responded on a 9-point scale
(1 definitely Person M,5both equally,9definitely Person
E). The scale anchors and the order in which Person M and Person
E were listed were counterbalanced. All responses scored such that
higher numbers indicated greater belief that Person E would know
them better.
Next, participants were asked to recall two significant pur-
chases, one material and one experiential. They were instructed to
select purchases from the past 5 years that had cost at least $50.
After providing a brief description and the cost of each purchase,
participants indicated their satisfaction with each (1 not at all
satisfied,5somewhat satisfied,9extremely satisfied).
Finally, participants provided their age, gender, hometown, and
native language before being debriefed and thanked.
Results. There was no significant difference in the cost of the
two types of specific purchases participants recalled, t(117)
1.01, p.31, and there were no effects of the counterbalancing on
any measure (ts1), so the different versions were collapsed.
4
Did participants believe that knowing about their experiential
purchases would give another person greater insight into their true
selves? As predicted, participants reported that Person E would
know them better than Person M (M5.85, SD 2.29), one-
sample ttest against the scale midpoint t(120) 4.08, p.001,
d0.371, an effect that was not qualified by gender, t(119) 1.
Indeed, a majority (62.8%) of participants expressed this belief,
circling a response above the scale midpoint (z2.91, p.005).
Consistent with previous research, participants were more sat-
isfied with their experiential purchases (M8.00, SD 1.47)
than their material purchases (M7.23, SD 1.65), paired
t(120) 3.83, p.001, d0.349. This effect was stronger for
women (M
exp
8.14 vs. M
mat
6.95), t(64) 4.14, p.001,
than for men (M
exp
7.84 vs. M
mat
7.55), t(55) 1.07, ns,
resulting in a significant Gender Condition interaction, F(1,
119) 5.17, p.05,
p
2
.04. Note that although the difference
3
There was no relationship between the life-centrality subscale and the
tendency to mention material purchases in their life narratives (r.09,
p.35).
4
Three participants did not report a codable cost for their experiential
purchase, hence the slightly lower degrees of freedom. The results do not
change whether these participants are included or excluded from the
analyses that follow.
1309
CENTRALITY OF EXPERIENCES TO THE SELF
in satisfaction derived from experiential and material purchases
was not significant for the male participants, it was in the same
direction as it was for female participants.
The tendency to rate a specific experiential purchase as more
satisfying than a specific material purchase (measured as a differ-
ence score) correlated significantly with participants’ general be-
lief that their experiences provide more insight into their true
selves (r.19, p.05). The magnitude of this correlation is not
large, a result that is likely a consequence of the two very different
measures used—a general sense that experiences represent the self
on one hand and satisfaction with specific, individual purchases on
the other. That the correlation between these measures (at very
different levels of abstraction) was nevertheless significant points
to the robustness of the connection between experiences and
personal identity.
Study 3B
Study 3B was modeled after Study 3A but in reverse. That is,
rather than ask participants whether a stranger who knew about
their experiences or possessions would have greater insight into
their own true selves, in Study 3B we asked participants which
purchase history would give them greater insight about a stranger.
Method. One hundred one participants (61 female, 40 male)
were recruited for a Web-based survey via Amazon.com’s Me-
chanical Turk. After reading a brief description of the distinction
between material and experiential purchases, participants were
asked to “Imagine there were two people, strangers to you, and you
know about all of one person’s experiential purchases (Person E)
and knew about all of the other person’s material purchases (Per-
son M) but know nothing else about either person. Which person
do you think you would know better? Would you have greater
insight into Person M or Person E’s true, essential self?” Partici-
pants responded using an analog sliding scale (anchored at 0 I
would have greater insight into Person M’s personality and 100
I would have greater insight into Person E’s personality). The
order of the description and the scale anchors was counterbal-
anced. Finally, participants completed the 15-item version of the
MVS (Richins, 2004) and provided basic demographic information
(age, gender, and income).
5
Results. There were no significant effects of order, so the two
versions were collapsed. As predicted, participants thought that
knowledge of a stranger’s experiences would give them greater
insight into the stranger’s true self (M61.34, SD 29.56),
based on a one-sample ttest against the scale midpoint, t(100)
3.85, p.001.
This belief was not significantly correlated with age or income
(rs.05, ps.70) and was not significantly qualified by gender
(p.10), although the effect was significant for female partici-
pants separately (M65.2, SD 28.3), t(60) 3.96, p.001,
but not for the male participants (M55.5, SD 30.0), t(39)
1.22, p.26. There was a marginally significant negative corre-
lation with responses to the MVS (r–.17, p.08). That is,
people who scored higher on trait materialism were less likely to
believe that knowing a person’s experiences provides more insight
into that person’s true self. They did not, however, express the
opposite belief. Even those who scored above the midpoint on the
scale showed the same trend, although it did not quite reach
significance (M57.76, SD 29.68), t(36) 1.59, p.12.
Study 3C
Study 3C was designed as a replication of Study 3B with
slightly different measures. Rather than asking participants which
of two strangers they would know better, we asked them to choose
which type of purchase history they would rather know when
meeting someone new.
Method. One hundred two participants (62 female, 40 male)
were recruited via Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk to complete a
Web-based survey. After reading a brief description of the distinc-
tion between material and experiential purchases, participants were
asked to “Imagine you are going to be meeting a new person who
might be important in your life (such as a blind date, or maybe
you’ve been assigned to work on a project together), and you can
learn just one thing about this person beforehand, either about their
material possessions, or about the experiences they’ve purchased.”
Participants were asked indicate which type of information would;
(a) give them more insight into the other person’s true, essential
self; (b) be most useful upon meeting the individual in question;
and (c) be more fun to talk about, using sliding analog scales
anchored at 0 (definitely their possessions) and 100 (definitely
their experiences). The scale anchors and the order in which the
purchase types were listed were counterbalanced. Finally, partic-
ipants completed the 15-item version of the MVS (Richins, 2004)
and provided basic demographic information (age, gender, and
income).
Results. There were no significant effects of order, so the two
versions were collapsed. As predicted, participants indicated that
they would rather learn about a person’s experiences than their
possessions to gain insight into the person’s true self (M72.09,
SD 28.20), perhaps because doing so would be more useful
(M73.59, SD 26.64) and more fun to talk about (M79.53,
SD 25.09), based on one-sample ttests against the scale mid-
point, all ts(101) 7.50, ps.001.
None of these measures were qualified by gender (all ts.20)
or significantly correlated with age or income (rs.10, ps.30).
The MVS did not correlate significantly with participants’ rating
of which type of purchase would provide the most insight about
the person in question, nor with the type of purchase they thought
would be useful to know (both rs.14, ps.18). But there was
a significant negative correlation with participants’ beliefs about
which kind of purchase would be more fun to talk about (r–.22,
p.03). However, even those relatively high on materialism
(scoring above the midpoint) expressed the same general prefer-
ence for experiential information, as even that restricted sample
scored significantly above the midpoint on the question of insight
into the self (M68.44, SD 28.83), how useful the knowledge
5
Age and income were assessed as categories, rather than precise
numbers (e.g., 25–34 years; $25,000–$50,000) in Studies 3B, 3C, and 4,
making it impossible to provide precise descriptive statistics. We can at
least report, in Study 3B for example, that a substantial portion of partic-
ipants were at least well into adulthood (40% were at least 35 years old)
and would generally be considered middle class (52% reported household
incomes less than $50,000 per year, and only 16% reported household
incomes above $100,000 per year). The ordinal nature of the categories,
however, still allows for computing the correlation between these variables
and the dependent measures.
1310 CARTER AND GILOVICH
would be (M65.75, SD 33.32), and how fun it would be to
talk about (M71.72, SD 31.89), all ts(31) 2.6, all ps.02.
Discussion. Studies 3A–C provide converging evidence that
knowledge of a person’s experiential purchases is prized informa-
tion—it is thought to yield much greater insight into the true selves
of others and to give others a clearer window into our own selves.
Study 3A also provided some initial evidence that the greater
satisfaction people derive from their experiential purchases is
related to their greater connection to the self. These three studies
also sampled a more diverse population than the undergraduates
used in Studies 1 and 2, helping to assuage any concern about
whether this phenomenon is unique to a young, highly educated,
and relatively affluent population.
Study 4: Material or Experiential Focus
In the studies presented thus far, we have used a few different
approaches to distinguish material and experiential purchases. We
provided a general definition of the two categories and had par-
ticipants generate their own examples in Studies 1 and 2, and we
asked participants in Studies 3A–3C to consider the categories in
the abstract and make a variety of judgments about the categories
as a whole. In Study 4, we used an approach that has proven useful
in other research (Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Rosenzweig & Gilov-
ich, 2012), one that takes advantage of the fact that some purchases
fall somewhere in the middle of the material and experiential
continuum. That is, we chose a particular example of a purchase
that has both material and experiential elements and described it in
a way that highlighted either its material or experiential nature.
Specifically, we had participants imagine owning a new 3-D
television and focused their attention on either its material qualities
or the experiences it affords.
Method
Participants. Two hundred two participants (117 female, 85
male) were recruited via Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk for a
short study about purchases. Three participants were excluded
from the analyses because they had previously participated in a
related study, although including them does not change the pattern
or significance of results.
Materials and procedure. Participants were asked to imag-
ine that they had just purchased a new 3-D television and to take
a few moments to think about what that would be like. The
description led participants to think about either its material ele-
ments (e.g., where it would go in their home, how well it would go
with their other possessions) or its experiential elements (e.g., what
it would be like to watch television “in a whole new way,” how it
would fit with other activities). Participants were then asked to
“consider that some of our purchases can feel rather close to our
sense of self. That is, some purchases form a larger part of our
self-definitions, of who we are, than others. How much would the
purchase of a 3-D TV feel like it’s part of your true, essential self?”
They were presented with five pairs of circles that varied in their
degree of overlap, similar to those in the Inclusion of Others in the
Self scale (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992) and asked to “choose the
set of circles below that best represents how much the purchase of
a 3-D TV would seem to you like it would overlap with your sense
of self.” Participants’ responses were scored as a 5-point scale,
with larger numbers indicating choosing a set of circles with more
overlap. They were also asked to imagine how happy they would
be with the television (1 somewhat happy,7extremely
happy).
Finally, participants completed the 15-item version of the MVS
(Richins, 2004) and provided basic demographic information (age,
gender, and income).
Results
There were no differences between conditions on any of the
demographic variables, including scores on the MVS. As pre-
dicted, participants in the experiential condition reported that the
television would be more a part of their true self (M2.38, SD
1.07) than participants in the material condition (M2.05, SD
1.00), t(197) 2.27, p.03, d0.314. The same pattern was
evident in participants’ responses to the happiness question, with
participants anticipating greater happiness when the television was
described as an experience (M4.58, SD 1.74), rather than a
possession (M4.16, SD 1.90), although this difference did not
reach statistical significance, t(197) 1.60, p.11, d0.241.
These results hold, or even get stronger, when controlling for age,
gender, income, and MVS, none of which significantly interacted
with condition.
Discussion
Exploring the material/experiential distinction in very different
manner, we again find that participants believe that an experiential
purchase captures more of who they are than a possession. By
using the same object and merely emphasizing its experiential or
material aspects, this study also eliminates any potential confounds
introduced by having participants recall purchases they have made.
No recall was involved. This result was not qualified by individual
differences in materialism, suggesting that even those relatively
high in materialism embrace the experiential aspects of a purchase
more than its material aspects. Consistent with past research
(Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Rosenzweig & Gilovich, 2012), focus-
ing participants’ attention on the experiential elements of the
purchase led them to believe that they would enjoy it more,
although the effect in this case was statistically significant. Nev-
ertheless, it is noteworthy that the (nonsignificant) difference in
anticipated in enjoyment is closely tied to the difference in close-
ness to the self. In a mediation analysis, we found that the
closeness-to-the-self measure explained the relationship between
the type of purchase and forecasted happiness (Sobel Z2.19,
p.03), and the reverse mediation was not significant (p.11).
However, because the between-condition difference in anticipated
enjoyment was not significant, we cannot place much stock in this
result. Accordingly, Study 5 offers an additional, more sensitive
test of this relationship, one in which the participants are asked to
make judgments about material and experiential purchases, not the
same object described in material or experiential terms.
Study 5: Memory Exchange
Once a purchase has been consumed, traded in, lost, destroyed,
or is otherwise no longer physically present in our lives, it is the
memories of the purchase that we consult to determine how happy
1311
CENTRALITY OF EXPERIENCES TO THE SELF
we are that we bought it. One consequence of experiences being a
greater part of the self is that people should be less willing to give
up those memories, as doing so would entail expunging a part of
the self (Gilovich, 1991). Indeed, there is evidence that people take
steps to protect memories they consider special (Zauberman, Rat-
ner, & Kim, 2009). We maintain that the enduring satisfaction
people derive from experiential purchases over time is directly
related to the incorporation of experiential memories into the
self-concept and to the concomitant belief that any alteration of
their experiential memories would involve changing a part of the
self.
Participants in the present study were therefore asked to imagine
that they had been given the chance to delete the memory of either
a material or experiential purchase from their autobiographies.
Which one would feel like a bigger change to the self? It was
predicted that participants would feel that deleting an experiential
purchase from their memories would result in a bigger change to
their self-concept (something they would be disinclined to con-
sider) than deleting a material purchase and that this tendency
would correlate with the greater satisfaction people derive from
their experiential purchases.
Method
Participants. Sixty Cornell University undergraduates (35
female, 25 male) completed the survey as a filler task during
unrelated experiments.
Procedure. Participants were first asked to recall and briefly
describe either a significant material or experiential purchase they
had made
6
and to indicate its cost and how long ago they had made
it. They then rated how important the purchase was to them and
their satisfaction with the purchase on 9-point Likert-type scales
(1 not at all important/satisfied,5somewhat important/
satisfied,9very important/satisfied).
Participants were then given the following instructions: “Imag-
ine that you could go back in time for just an instant and make a
different decision, choosing one of the alternatives instead, and
then come back to the present. All of your current memories of that
purchase would be replaced with new memories that were formed
as a result of the different choice, but ultimately you have arrived
back at the same place and time, right where you are now.” The
instructions were designed to ensure that participants were only
considering the alteration of their memories of that particular
purchase, and not a change in their current life circumstances.
They were then asked whether they would be willing to make such
an exchange (1 absolutely not,9definitely), how much
happier they would be if they made such an exchange (1 much
less happy,5about the same,9much more happy), how
important their current memories were to them (1 not at all
important,5somewhat important,9very important), and to
what degree such an exchange would alter who they were (1 not
at all,5somewhat,9a great deal).
Results
There were no differences between conditions in how important
the purchases were (p.23) or how long ago the purchases were
made (p.30), but participants in the experiential condition
reported purchases that were more expensive (Mdn $275) than
those reported by participants in the material condition (Mdn
$200), t(58) 2.00, p.05. We therefore controlled for purchase
price in the analyses below.
Consistent with previous findings, participants in the experien-
tial condition reported that their purchases were more satisfying
(M8.13, SD 1.20) than those in the material condition (M
7.50, SD 1.01), t(58) 2.22, p.04, d0.54. This result was
not qualified by gender (p.40), and it remained marginally
significant when controlling for how long ago the purchase was
made and the cost of the purchase, ␤⫽.471, t(56) 1.80, p.08.
One potential concern is that, because participants in the material
condition were asked to recall a purchase they no longer possessed,
they might have recalled purchases that they had gotten rid of
because they were unsatisfying, creating an artifactual difference
in satisfaction. The data suggest otherwise. None of the partici-
pants in the material condition reported satisfaction below the
midpoint (which was not the case in the experiential condition),
suggesting that the effect was not driven by a few dissatisfied
customers. Furthermore, even if we look at the subset of data in
which participants rated their satisfaction at least a 7 on the 9-point
scale, their experiences were still more satisfying, t(51) 3.36,
p.001, d0.99.
Responses to the four “exchange” questions were averaged to
create an index of participants’ willingness to exchange memories
of the purchase, scored such that higher numbers indicated a
greater willingness to make such an exchange (␣⫽.72). As
predicted, participants in the material condition were more willing
to exchange their memories (M5.57, SD 1.55) than partici-
pants in the experiential condition (M4.38, SD 1.64), t(58)
2.88, p.01, d0.74. This result was not qualified by gender
(p.70) and remained significant when controlling for how long
ago the purchase was made and the cost of the purchase, ␤⫽.629,
t(56) 2.44, p.02. Thus, by yet another metric (a relative
reluctance to let go of an experience in exchange for something
else), people consider their experiences to be more a part of who
they are than their material goods.
Is the greater satisfaction people derive from experiential pur-
chases connected to their conviction that such memories are an
important part of the self? A series of regression analyses was
conducted to see if the reported difference in satisfaction between
conditions was significantly mediated by the willingness to ex-
change the purchase in question (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Having
already established that both satisfaction with the purchase and the
willingness to exchange the purchase were influenced by the
type of purchase recalled, we examined whether the effect of
the purchase type on satisfaction is a consequence of the relative
willingness to exchange memories (see Figure 2). In a regression
predicting participants’ satisfaction with their purchase, the mem-
ory exchange index was indeed a significant predictor, ␤⫽–.352,
t(57) –2.76. p.01, and the effect of purchase condition
dropped to nonsignificance, ␤⫽.307, t(57) –1.21, p.23. A
Sobel test confirmed that this drop was significant (Z1.99, p
.05). The reverse mediation, testing whether greater satisfaction
with experiential purchases accounts for the unwillingness to ex-
6
To keep the physical presence of the purchase consistent across con-
ditions, participants in the material condition were asked to recall a
material purchase that they no longer possessed.
1312 CARTER AND GILOVICH
change one’s memories, was only marginally significant (Z
1.73, p.09). Because we suspect that these processes (satisfac-
tion with a purchase and feeling that it is part of one’s identity)
feed back on one another, this is not surprising. But what is critical
to note is that at least part of the reason experiential purchases are
ultimately more satisfying than material purchases is that memo-
ries of experiential purchases are held more dearly and constitute
more important components of the self.
Discussion
As predicted, participants clung more firmly to their experiences
than to their material possessions, claiming that their experiential
memories were more important to them and that exchanging their
experiential purchases would more significantly alter who they are.
This tendency, furthermore, mediated the between-condition dif-
ference in participants’ reported satisfaction with their purchases.
People are thus made happier by their experiences than their
possessions in part because their experiences are more central and
more important to their self-concept.
General Discussion
In seven studies, we found that people tend to define themselves
more in terms of their experiential purchases than their posses-
sions. Experiences were plotted physically closer to the self than
possessions in a Venn diagram (Study 1), experiences were more
likely than possessions to be mentioned in participants’ life stories
(Study 2), and participants generally believed that knowledge of a
person’s experiential purchases (including their own) would con-
vey more information about the person’s true self than knowledge
of his or her material purchases (Studies 3A–3C). Participants even
thought that the very same purchase, when described in experien-
tial rather than material terms, would feel closer to their sense of
self (Study 4). Moreover, the tendency to cling more dearly to
memories of experiences helps to explain why people report
greater satisfaction with their experiential purchases than their
material purchases, as evidenced by the mediation analysis re-
ported in Study 5.
Potential Limitations and Concerns
It can be risky to make precise claims about fuzzy categories.
And the distinction between material and experiential purchases is
not always precise. Although replacing one handbag or one down
comforter with another is clearly a material act and spending a
week in Hanalei or Obud is clearly experiential, what about a
buying an mp3 player? Is it a material good or a means of having
experiences one could not have otherwise? Despite some defini-
tional difficulties when it comes to material and experiential pur-
chases, it is unlikely that these difficulties call the current results
into question for several reasons. First, we allowed the participants
to generate their own examples of material and experiential pur-
chases, and not only did they have no difficulty doing so, but
previous work has shown that what participants generate aligns
with the categorizations of independent raters (Carter & Gilovich,
2010). The distinction thus appears to be meaningful, consensual,
and easy to make. Second, when an item at the ambiguous bound-
ary between experiential and material purchases is described in
either experiential or material terms, it evokes psychological pro-
cesses that enhance or limit satisfaction, respectively. In Study 4, for
example, participants rated the very same object as more reflective of
their true self if their attention was drawn to its experiential properties
instead of its material properties. Third, a variety of possible correlates
of material and experiential purchases—such as cost, the rated mag-
nitude of the purchase, and how much people in general could be
expected to find it satisfying—did not account for the reported dif-
ferences in participants’ thoughts and feelings about what they had
bought. It thus seems highly unlikely that the findings reported here
are an artifact some other variable lurking in the less-than-sharp
borderland between experiential and material purchases. Taken to-
gether, these studies fit into a growing body of literature indicating
that the experiential and material categories are meaningful, with real
consequences for people’s satisfaction and well-being (Carter &
Gilovich, 2010; Nicolao et al., 2009; Rosenzweig & Gilovich, 2012;
Van Boven, 2005; Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003).
Although we suspect that participants were mindful of self-
presentational concerns when responding to our questions, it is
unlikely that a desire to avoid appearing materialistic was respon-
sible for our results (Fournier & Richins, 1991; Van Boven,
Campbell, & Gilovich, 2010). For one thing, one would expect
those who score high on the MVS to be perfectly willing to admit
that possessions are a central part of their existence and, hence, to
be less subject to such self-presentational concerns. But even those
scoring high on the MVS showed the same general pattern, albeit
less powerfully. The pattern of results was not reversed for the
most materialistic participants. More important, although it is
possible that participants might not want the experimenter to know
how materialistic they are themselves, such a concern would not
influence how they would respond when asked about someone
else. But as we saw in Studies 3B and 3C, participants showed the
same preference for information about experiences when asked
what would be most informative about another person.
Is the effect we have documented moderated by gender? There
was a significant gender interaction in the first study, in which
participants drew depictions of their experiential and material
purchases at various distances to the self to capture how much a
part of the self they were thought to be. Female participants drew
their experiences closer to the self, but men did not. In Study 3B,
a similar gender difference was reflected in participants’ beliefs
about how much they would learn about another person’s true self
from knowing about their experiential versus material purchases,
but the Gender Type of Purchase interaction was not significant.
Finally, in Study 3A, female participants reported a bigger differ-
ence in how much satisfaction they derived from their experiential
Purchase type
Willingness to exchange memories
(
β
=-.31)
β
= .70*
β
=-.35*
β
=-.55* Satisfaction
Figure 2. Mediation analysis: The impact of purchase type on satisfaction
is mediated by the willingness to exchange memories of the purchase.
p.05.
1313
CENTRALITY OF EXPERIENCES TO THE SELF
and material purchases than men did, but male and female partic-
ipants did not differ in how much they thought others would know
about them based on their experiential versus material purchases.
No gender effects emerged in any of the other studies, and so one
has to entertain the possibility that these are merely statistical
anomalies. But maybe not. We cannot rule out the possibility that
there is a tendency—not a robust one, clearly—for women to
embrace their experiences as part of themselves a bit more than
men or for men to embrace their material goods a bit more than
women. However, even if that were so—something that can only
be established through further research—the evidence reported
here makes it clear that thinking of one’s experiential purchases as
more a part of the self than material purchases is a general
tendency that applies to both men and women.
A final possible concern is that participants in the present
studies were specifically asked to recall examples of purchases
with which they were generally satisfied. Recent research suggests
that differences in satisfaction between experiences and posses-
sions may be limited to purchases that are rather satisfying (Ni-
colao et al., 2009). Although we would like to see this potential
limitation explored further in future research, we believe that, even
if this were the case, the advice that follows would not change. It
is certainly fair to assume that, on average, the purchases people
make end up being at least somewhat satisfying. That is, after all,
the goal of making purchases in the first place. And although
people may not be particularly good at predicting the impact or
duration of their future happiness, they are quite good at predicting
whether a given event will make them happy or not (T. D. Wilson
& Gilbert, 2003). Therefore, the overall recommendation that
follows from research on experiential and material purchases re-
mains: People would be well advised to tilt their purchasing
decisions toward the experiential end of the spectrum, because
experiences provide more enduring satisfaction.
Identity Signaling and Materialism
The focus of the present research has been on the connection
between material and experiential purchases and the self, but it is
worth thinking about the signaling intentions behind the two
different kinds of purchases. It is certainly no surprise that people
choose to make particular purchases to signal particular elements
of their identity, such as wealth and social status (e.g., Schor, 1998;
Veblen, 1899), and to differentiate themselves from others (Tian,
Bearden, & Hunter, 2001). Whereas some research on identity
signaling focuses on the detailed mechanics and subtle nature of
much identity signaling (e.g., Berger & Heath, 2007, 2008), many
commentators have focused on what are seen as negative conse-
quences of using purchases as identity signals, such as the impact
of overconsumption on the physical, social, and economic envi-
ronment (e.g., de Graaf, Wann, & Naylor, 2001; Frank, 1999;
Kasser, Cohn, Kanner, & Ryan, 2007; Schor, 1998).
A frequent presumption is that the use of purchases to signal
identity or social status is ultimately detrimental to well-being
(e.g., Kasser & Kanner, 2004). This has largely been attributed to
the pursuit of conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899; cf. Berger
& Ward, 2010), which can spark competitive materialistic “arms
races” (Frank, 1999) and hinder engagement in activities known to
contribute to well-being, such as forming and attending to social
relationships (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002; Frank, 1999;
Kasser et al., 2007; Sirgy, 1998).
Note that this analysis may apply more readily to material than
experiential purchases for the simple reason that experiences, by
their very nature, are less conspicuous than possessions. Conspic-
uously bronzed skin, evidence of a recent trip to Bali, will fade
within a few weeks, but a BMW will signal one’s ability to afford
a luxury automobile for quite some time. Experiences may there-
fore be relatively poor choices for those hoping to convey wealth
and status. Although over-the-top weddings, vacations, and
coming-of-age celebrations do exist, and the ability to engage in
leisure activities (rather than needing to spend one’s time laboring)
can be a powerful indicator of wealth (Veblen, 1899), on average,
possessions are a more visible and more persistent signal.
Also, because experiences tend to be evaluated on their own
merits (Carter & Gilovich, 2010), they are less likely to spark
competitive spirals of conspicuous consumption. Indeed, in one
study, Carter and Gilovich (2010) found that people were less
concerned about negative social comparisons when it came to their
experiential purchases than when it came to their material pur-
chases. If people are unlikely to think ill of a vacation that falls
short of someone else’s, or even to make that comparison to begin
with, what good is a superior vacation as a signal of status?
Furthermore, even those experiential purchases made with the
intention of being conspicuous are likely to involve other people.
Because social connectedness is known to contribute to well-being
(Myers, 2000), this feature of conspicuous experiential consump-
tion may help offset the negative consequences of otherwise ex-
trinsic goals (Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996).
It should be noted that there is little reason to believe that
participants in the present studies retrieved the examples of pos-
sessions that they did because of their identity-signaling value. The
tendency to signal identity through one’s purchases is a hallmark
of a materialistic orientation, and the very modest correlations with
trait materialism that we observed suggest that participants’
identity-signaling intentions did little to factor into the pattern of
results. Although the differences between purchase types were
strongest amongst those low in materialism, the trend was never
reversed for those high in materialism, similar to the findings of
Nicolao et al. (2009). Even those who scored above the midpoint
of the MVS placed their experiences and possessions equally
distant from their self-concept (Study 1) and were nonsignificantly
more likely to include their experiences in their life narratives
(Study 2). This suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there may be
something of a disconnect between what materialists believe will
be meaningful to them and what actually is.
Implications
Aside from the greater satisfaction it affords, what are some of
the consequences of this tendency to hold experiential purchases
closer to the self-concept? Ironically, the desire to protect memo-
ries that are closely associated with the self can lead people to
choose not to repeat those experiences for fear of spoiling the
sense that they’re “special” (Zauberman et al., 2009). For example,
you might be reluctant to return to the greasy spoon where, while
waiting out a rainstorm, you and your spouse turned overcooked
hash browns into a romantic evening, out of fear that whatever
magic it possessed that night is now gone, leaving only mediocre
1314 CARTER AND GILOVICH
food and dusty ambiance in its place. This same process is unlikely
to interfere with the desire to purchase the same model of vacuum
cleaner next time around. Of course, special memories can become
attached to material possessions as well (i.e., souvenirs), although
these are typically tokens of the experiences attached to acquiring
that possession.
As noted above, people’s memories of their experiences may
become more positive over time because, by virtue of being
closely attached to the self, they are subject to the same kinds of
motivational and cognitive forces that serve to bolster and protect
self-esteem (e.g., Dunning, 2005). For example, the same defen-
sive processes evident when the self is perceived to be under threat
might operate when some threat to the memory of an experiential
purchase is detected. The memory-protecting strategy noted above
is one way to do so (Zauberman et al., 2009). People might also be
more likely to make purchases that will buffer their identity when
threatened. Work on terror-management theory, which presents
participants with the ultimate threat to the self-concept by making
the inevitability of death salient, suggests that this is indeed the
case, although not quite in the manner one would expect from the
present findings. That is, participants whose mortality has been
made salient tend to be drawn to materialistic purchases and to
engage in other behaviors that they believe will provide them
wealth and status (for a review, see Arndt, Solomon, Kasser, &
Sheldon, 2004). This suggests that although people are interested
in making purchases that help to validate their identity when it is
threatened, their naı¨ve theories about which purchases will ulti-
mately be most meaningful to them may be off the mark.
Note also that simply taking note of past experiential purchases
might serve to buffer against identity threats. That is, thinking
about an important experiential purchase and about its relationship
to the self and the higher order goals it served, might constitute a
form of self-affirmation (Steele, 1988). Because material pur-
chases are less connected to the self, they are less suited to this
purpose. This difference between experiential and material pur-
chases, furthermore, points to a potential moderator of the present
results. It might be that it is mainly people with high self-esteem
who derive special pleasure from thinking about their experiential
purchases. For those with low self-esteem, thinking about some-
thing closely associated with the self may not be particularly
comforting. Note that the converse might also be true: People with
low self-esteem or depressed individuals might be especially dis-
inclined to incorporate positive experiences into their self-concept
and, thus, may be less able to reap the positive benefits of expe-
riential purchases. These are all potentially fruitful avenues for
future research.
As demonstrated in Study 4, it may be possible to take advan-
tage of the ambiguous nature of the material/experiential distinc-
tion. By focusing on the experiential aspects of a purchase that has
both material and experiential elements, people appear to derive
the same benefits they receive from more canonical experiential
purchases. Episodic memories of the purchase, crucial to the
incorporation of experiences into the self-concept, might play an
especially important role in such reframing. That is, thinking about
the experiential components of a given purchase might trigger the
recollection of specific episodic memories and crowd out more
purely semantic memories and, thus, help to forge new connec-
tions between the purchase and the self. Over time, this experien-
tial focus might allow even relatively material purchases to be-
come more closely connected to the self.
Conclusions
The present studies replicate previous work demonstrating that
experiences tend to be more satisfying than possessions and pro-
vide empirical support for one of the proposed mechanisms un-
derlying that result, namely, that experiences are more closely
connected to the self.
Although the police would not likely be swayed by a suspected
arsonist’s claim that he would never deliberately destroy his own
possessions, they might very well believe that no one would
deliberately destroy their memories, were it possible (and a crime)
to do so. Indeed, the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind (Bregman, Golin, & Gondry, 2004), starring Jim Carrey and
Kate Winslet, conjures a world in which neurosurgery has pro-
gressed to the point that specific memories can be erased from
one’s mind, not unlike the scenario we presented to participants in
Study 5. Over the course of the film, the characters involved come
to realize that their memories, even highly unpleasant ones, are
still very much worth keeping. Our memories are what make us
who we are. If we make purchases that contribute to our sense of
self—that is, if we pursue experiences over material goods—there
are likely to be more memories, more of us, to cherish and
embrace.
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Accepted January 23, 2012
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... If socially shared with others, experiential consumption enhances one's feelings of belongingness and relatedness (Carter & Gilovich, 2012). When individuals' anxiety about their security is salient, they tend to reprioritize the things in their lives. ...
... During salient disasters, individuals may be more willing to choose experiences over materialistic possessions. Over time, these experiences shape and strengthen individuals' identities and become part of their sense of self, thus enriching their lives and providing longerlasting satisfaction (Carter & Gilovich, 2012;Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). Meaningful social relationships also contribute significantly to human happiness (Diener & Seligman, 2002). ...
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... material) purchases, we contribute to both marketing literature and practice. First, building on prior research on the experiential advantage (Bastos, 2020;Bastos & Brucks, 2017;Carter & Gilovich, 2012;Weingarten & Goodman, 2021), we extend the literature on experiential purchases by identifying an unexplored antecedent factor-consumer power-that affects consumer preference for experiential purchases. We further add to the literature by showing that this effect is driven by the expected happiness from experiential purchases. ...
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... In contrast, material possessions either exist outside the memory or are usually featured only as minor parts within our memory. Indeed, Carter and Gilovich (2012) found that people mentioned experiences (vs. material goods) more prominently when telling their life story and that experiential (vs. ...
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... Во-вторых, одинакова ли эта основа самотождественности для всех людей или существуют индивидуальные различия в том, что важно для человека? В частности, неотъемлемой своей частью человек может считать свое участие в социальной группе, свои личностные черты и даже внешние объекты, например покупки [Carter, Gilovich, 2012]. Как правило, социальная психология сужает фокус своего внимания до социальных объектов (социальная идентичность), психология личностидо личностных особенностей (личностная идентичность), но такое «размежевание» не отвечает на сам вопрос. ...
... Если в идентичность включаются вещественные предметы (Я как обладатель некой вещи, см. [Carter, Gilovich, 2012]), роль прототипа будут играть ожидания и нормы от самой вещи и от роли ее обладателя, а слияние идентичности будет характеризоваться эмоциональным ажиотажем, переживанием единства себя и вещи. ...
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Несмотря на большой интерес психологов и социологов к проблеме идентичности, на настоящий момент не достигнуто единого подхода к определению, структуре, механизмам формирования и особенностям функционирования идентичности. Обсуждаются возможности использования модели телесной идентичности, предложенной в рамках психологии телесности, для интерпретации других форм идентичности и объяснения самого механизма идентификации. В качестве универсального феноменологического переживания идентичности рассматривается ощущение управления / авторства и принадлежности.
... At the same time, research has shown that involvement in meaningful nonwork activities helps people to detach from paid work, which in turn is associated with greater well-being (Sonnentag, 2012). When combining all of this with research showing that people overwhelmingly prefer experiences over possessions (Van Boven and Gilovich, 2003;Carter and Gilovich, 2012), it becomes clear that people are yearning for more meaning to their lives through means other than work, most notably through leisure that enables them to do personally meaningful activities. ...
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