There's something very appealing about giving your friends and family fashionable, designer-y gifts: those Scandinavian salt-and-paper shakers and minimalist wine racks not only rehabilitate their terrible decorating decisions, but also speak well to your own taste. Beware, however! According to new findings in the Journal of Marketing Research, your well-intentioned purchase could set off an avalanche of new and financially ruinous purchases, aimed at restoring design equilibrium.
The problem is what Vanessa Patrick of the University of Houston and Henrik Hagtvedt of Boston College (pictured) call "aesthetic incongruity resolution." In a forthcoming paper, they describe the way that a single highly designed item can upset the balance among your possessions, driving you to buy new items of similar "design salience" to create equilibrium. It's the design quality of the new item which, more than anything else, seems to drive new purchases. If something is uglier than the rest of your stuff, you return or exchange it - but if it's cooler, then you spend gobs of money trying to raise your all-around coolness to its level. We start out, Patrick says, asking "[w]hat could be so wrong in purchasing a cute purple sweater or a unique little side table for the hallway? But, we take it home and that's when it happens...."
The researchers acknowledge that his is hardly a modern phenomenon. They begin by citing 19th century French philosopher Denis Diderot's essay "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown (Or, A Warning to Those Who Have More Taste Than Money)," which was published in 1772. Diderot describes how the acquisition of a new, excruciatingly tasteful dressing gown forced him to upgrade the rest of his possessions, more or less against his will, at enormous cost. He ends up cursing "the scarlet robe that forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone."
What is it about design value that's so beguiling? Patrick and Hagtvedt speculate that aesthetic excellence gives an item "intrinsic" value (an ugly but expensive item, by contrast, doesn't drive you to make everything you own equally expensive). Diderot himself had a better answer: a lack of harmony among the parts compromises the beauty of the whole. It's not about the new object per se, but about the whole room. "I can look without distaste at a peasant woman," Diderot explains,
But my gorge rises at the sight of an elegant courtesan, perfumed though she may be.... Her coiffure with little curls in the English mode, her slashed sleeves, her dirty silk stockings and worn out shoes reveal to me the necessary transition from yesterday's high living to today's squalor.
The same thing, unfortunately, is true of his living room.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.