Surprise! Research shows exposure to luxury brands make us more selfish.
New research, reported in The New York Times this week (and elsewhere earlier), corroborates what all of us driving Hondas have always told ourselves: that guy in the BMW actually is a jerk.  Well, at least he (and males were significantly worse than females) and other drivers of Porsche, Mercedes, etcetera are more like to blow through a pedestrian-prioritized crosswalk than non-luxury car drivers, according to this survey, which is summarized in the video below.

We May Be Inherently Selfish, but Luxury Brands Make Us More So
So, is this just a facet of my-wallet-is-bigger-than-your-wallet male psychology, or do luxury brands exacerbate our less socially positive and more self-aggrandizing tendencies?  In considering this, I discovered research that indicates men’s testosterone levels are affected by the status of the cars they drive, and that women judge men to be more attractive the more expensive their clothes and cars are. The most telling study I uncovered, however, goes beyond those experientially obvious conclusions to suggest luxury goods (and by extension, the branding that provides social validation) not only serve the selfish but incite them to be even more self-centered.

Harvard Study Says The Devil May Actually Wear Prada
A 2009 study out of Harvard Business School offers these bracing insights

  • When people are exposed to luxury brands, the area of the brain associated with self-interest is activated
  • When primed by exposure to luxury goods, “people are more likely to endorse self-interested business decisions… even at the expense of others.”

That last conclusion arose from an exercise in which respondents were asked to imagine themselves either as the CEO of a car manufacturer who could create a successful new model, but at the cost of increased pollution; the head of a software company that could reap millions from releasing new software, but at a stage where it still suffered from many bugs; or the head of an ad agency that could take on a profitable video game account, but from a company making games proven to incite violence in young boys.  In each scenario, those exposed to luxury brands opted for profit, even given the human cost to others.

So What’s A Luxury Brand to Do?
There is a good deal of activity around Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for luxury brands, presumably as an antidote to the potentially toxic imagery of uncaring, greedy luxury consumers, but some researchers question whether or not lux brands are credible supporting those who work with the less lucky.

Still, as the Harvard study notes, in an era where potentially explosive social divisions are arising between the increasingly disparate haves and have nots, luxury brands – and all of us – may be better served by learning how to modulate our messages toward more objective luxury benefits such as quality and away from brand images of status that separate a select few not only from the masses, but also from their own better judgment.

A Video Summary of Recent Research on the Impact of Exposure to Luxury Brands: