The Pursuit of Meaning

Nicole Mead and Lawrence Williams recently published a JCR article on consumers’ search for meaning. “The Pursuit of Meaning and the Preference for Less Expensive Options” can be found here. June Cotte recently chatted with the authors about their article, and how they search for meaning in their own lives.

A Conversation with the Authors

June: How did this co-author collaboration happen?

Nicole and Lawrence: We’ve been friends since grad school, and we’ve always batted around research ideas. Nothing ever took off, in part because the timing was never right. One ACR, while sharing a meal, we discovered our mutual fascination with the pursuit of meaning. Each of us had separate but complementary projects in the initial stages. We decided to join forces and the project took off from there.

June: What made you both interested in this topic in the first place?

Nicole and Lawrence: We both study fundamental motivations, with an eye toward understanding how we can optimize those for consumer well-being. In the Aristotelian tradition, meaning and pleasure are essential for living the good life so from that perspective it’s a natural motivation for us to think about and study.

In addition, we are both curious about how to encourage consumers to buy fewer, nicer things over more, inferior things. We think this is important for consumer well-being since nicer things last longer and can deliver more benefits over time, whereas cheaper things break down sooner and can fail to deliver on expected benefits. Understanding this trade off also has important implications for the health of our planet since cheap things are more resource intensive because they are disposed of more quickly and replaced more rapidly. We noticed high-end brands using meaningful language in their advertisements and wondered whether the pursuit of meaning fosters a tendency to “splash out.”

 June: Was there anything you found really surprising as you went through this research project?

Nicole and Lawrence: We went into this project sharing what seems to be a common intuition that money shouldn’t be an object when it comes to symbolically meaningful purchases. In fact, Lawrence had an ongoing project about lay intuitions of meaningful consumption, and those studies suggested that people prioritizing meaningful consumption should buy more (vs. less) expensive products. However, from the very beginning, we found the opposite pattern: the pursuit of meaning (vs. pleasure) caused people to cheap out. We were surprised by this finding, so we created variations on our design (different products, services, and experiences; different IVs) and repeatedly found the same basic pattern in our confirmatory (pre-registered) studies.

Another surprise came when we tried to understand why meaning-seekers “cheap out.” We thought we’d find evidence of moral convictions– the feeling that it’s wrong to use money to buy meaning. We found a bit of that, but overwhelmingly the data pointed to a very rational thought process: people who were pursuing meaning (vs. pleasure) thought about what else they could do with their money (i.e., opportunity costs). We found this surprising because people think about opportunity costs a lot less than academics expect. In addition, the precursors to opportunity cost consideration are not very well known. It was an important discovery for us because turning off opportunity cost consideration – either by asking people to focus narrowly on their current purchase or by reminding them that durable products last longer – reoriented meaning seekers to more expensive and hence higher-quality products.

June: What do each of you do to pursue meaning?

Nicole: I recently had a baby. My experience comports well with the current scholarly conclusion that raising a child is highly meaningful but not always very pleasurable! Aside from this daily source of meaning, I seek to create meaning by mentoring students, doing research that I hope will have a positive impact on the world, and pushing myself to grow through multi-day hikes in beautiful places with my husband.

Lawrence:  I look to make meaning primarily through connecting with loved ones, building community, and self-growth. Accordingly, the most meaningful parts of my week involve having increasingly philosophical and totally ridiculous conversations with my kids, supporting causes I believe in, and stretching myself to find new challenges (which lately include roller-skating and comedy writing).


A Short Summary of the Research

While of course we want you to read the article in full (again, it’s right here), here’s a non-technical summary Nicole and Lawrence wrote to whet your appetite!

People often use the marketplace to pursue important goals, such as to have fun, relax, and engage in self-care. Indeed, a great deal of previous consumer research has examined how pursing pleasure, good feelings, or happiness in general influences the choices people make. But we know that life is not all about happiness and sunshine. Across history and spanning many cultures, people around the world commonly endorse the idea that a life truly well lived is one that is rich in meaning.

In this research, we start with the idea that people use the marketplace to add meaning to their lives, since we often buy things to express our identity, show how we matter, find our purpose, and connect with close ones. We then ask: when people are seeking to add meaning to their lives and think about buying things, how much are they willing to spend? Consumers might want to know the answer to this question, especially if their spending tendencies make it harder for them to find the meaning they seek. Companies might want to know the answer to this question, especially if they are searching for ways to be more purposefully aligned with their customers. Our main finding is that when people are pursuing meaning (compared to pursuing pleasure or being prompted with no specific goal at all), they gravitate towards less expensive products and services.

For example, in one study we asked participants to make choices with the goal of finding meaning (versus pleasure). We then presented them with sets of products that varied on price (e.g., an expensive coffeemaker paired with a less expensive one; a luxury car paired with an economy one). Across multiple categories, we found that people pursuing meaning tended to “cheap out,” preferring the options with a lower price tag.

In a follow-up study, we gave participants seeking meaning an opportunity to “shop” on Amazon, selecting any product of their liking within a £75 budget. To make the study as realistic as possible, participants were told that there was a chance that they could win the product they selected plus any money left over. Even when they could choose almost anything on this major shopping platform, people pursuing meaning selected less expensive products compared to a matched group of participants not given any particular goal.

We discovered that a key reason why people pursuing meaning tend to cheap out is because when they are making choices, they tend to think about all of the other things they might do with the money to help them find meaning. But in our final study, when we instructed meaning-seeking participants to focus their attention squarely on the benefits of the product at hand (a premium handmade photo album), they expressed a greater willingness to pay for it compared to meaning-seeking participants told to focus on alternative uses for their money or those given no particular instructions. This finding provides guidance for both customers and companies interested in making the most of meaningful purchases: a narrow focus on the options at hand can increase the likelihood that a focal product would be chosen, even if it is more expensive.

These results are important for helping consumers make spending decisions in line with their goals. For example, a more expensive coffeemaker often will be more durable and reliable than a less expensive one. As a result, it will be replaced less often, providing more opportunity for it to become a meaningful object in the buyer’s life. For a person pursuing meaning in the marketplace, choosing less expensive options in the short run may end up being more expensive and less eco-conscious in the long run. These results are also important for managers, as they provide guidance on how to be better partners with their meaning-seeking customers. Instead of providing meaning-oriented products (often at a premium), firms might do better by showing how their products and services can help customers save money that can be used for their meaningful pursuits.

You can also read more about this project here.