'Everyone Has It, I Want It': The Economics Of Being Basic

by John Haltiwanger

Have you ever thought about how much money you waste buying certain brands? Do you recall that time you bought a $90 polo shirt just because it has a stupid horse on it instead of buying a plain one for $15?

If everyone else is buying it, it must be a great product, right? Wrong.

But don't beat yourself up; we've all been there. It's easy to fall victim to the temptation of branding. We've all been basic. If you're unfamiliar with this term, Urban Dictionary has got you covered:

Materialism is manipulative. Humans are social beings; we often follow the pack. It's comforting to be generic. Remember when every bro in New York City wore the same J Crew gingham shirt?

The psychology of consumerism

Humans have been following trends for thousands of years. These ranged from the practical to the utterly ridiculous.

People have frequently inconvenienced themselves for the sake of conformity. We really are simple creatures.

For example, corsets were worn by women for centuries. In spite of the fact that they limit a person's mobility and make it difficult to breathe, corsets became popular simply because people wanted to look a certain way. They were willing to endure pain in order to follow what was fashionable.

There's a psychology and culture behind all of this.

Research has shown that people now follow brands with religious-like fervor. Professor Matt J. Rossano from the psychology department at Southeastern Louisiana University contends:

[It's] An iconic metaphor for our times: Religion retreating in the face of a relentless consumerist onslaught. With increasing numbers of people being married at Disney World and buried in Harley Davidson coffins, brands as modern religion may not be all that implausible.

Just look at the way people react when a new iPhone is released. It's an event, a complete and utter spectacle. And it's made Apple filthy rich.

When the iPhone 6 was released earlier this year, Apple sold a whopping 10 million phones in the opening weekend alone.

Psychologists believe that this culture of consumerism is making our society more narcissistic and insecure. We want to buy more things for ourselves, and we're less confident when everyone has something and we don't.

We've all had that feeling that we absolutely have to buy that one thing. We think to ourselves: Everyone has it. It's the best. It will make life amazing. Without it, our life is dull and unfulfilled.

Yet, once we finally obtain this exceptional item, we realize that it hasn't altered our existence, it's just subtracted commas from our bank account.

There's nothing wrong with preferring a certain brand because it's reliable and practical. Yet, we all have to admit that sometimes we simply desire to buy things because they are popular.

Ultimately, these things don't add any real value to our lives, but we still have an impulse to purchase them. In the process, we waste money and lose perspective on what's truly important.

Money buys expensive goods, but not happiness

Remember when you were a kid and your parents bought the generic brand of Froot Loops instead of the Kellogg ones?

If you're like most kids, it probably drove you crazy. Yet, when it comes down to it, we all eventually realized that there's not much difference in the taste. We just loved the colorful little toucan and the toys that the cereal boxes often contained.

Most of us carry this desire to buy the more expensive brand throughout our lives.

We all bought a pricey North Face fleece back in high school, for example, because everyone else had bought one too. We could have purchased a fleece jacket with the same functionality for much cheaper, but it wouldn't have had that iconic "North Face" brand on the front.

A North Face fleece jacket costs $179.00. Sure, it's a great product, but you would be just as warm wearing a Columbia fleece for $29.99.

In college, we all bought Ray Ban sunglasses, in spite of the fact that we knew we'd probably end up breaking them whilst highly inebriated (and we did). There goes $199.95 (plus tax) down the drain. We could have bought aviators at a gas station for $5.

Think about everything you miss out on because of the basic items you buy. The money you could have saved, the experiences you couldn't afford.

This isn't to say that you should feel guilty about your former purchases. Yet, it's fair to argue that, as a society, we've become far too materialistic. We're all following the pack and spending so much more money because of it.

Trends are fleeting, but we subscribe to them as if they'll never die. In the words of Oscar Wilde:

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.

Research has shown that consumerism makes people less content because it makes them feel like they don't have enough. Buying more stuff won't make you happy. Fulfillment is not acquired through things, but through making an observable impact in the world.

No one will remember the guy with 500 pairs of Jordans in his closet when he dies, but they will remember the man who went out and bought shoes for the homeless.

Citations: Basic (Urban Dictionary ), Sacred Brands Consumerism as Modern Religion (Huffington Post), Consumerism and its discontents (American Psychological Association ), The Psychology Of Materialism And Why Its Making You Unhappy (Huffington Post )