Costly Curves: New study shows exposure to certain shapes influences personal spending

A new study from Colorado State University shows how exposure to certain human-like shapes can affect consumer spending. In the study, individuals with a higher body mass index who were exposed to thin human-shaped objects made more indulgent financial decisions.

Marisabel Romero, assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at Colorado State, and Adam Craig, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Kentucky, based their study on Western society’s tendency to promote a stereotypical connection between a person’s thinness and their positive financial outcomes, such as high self-discipline, success and financial achievement.

“Those consumers who are thin are thought to be better at controlling their spending and achieving financial success,” said Romero. “This link is often reinforced in the media, which allows consumers to easily recall positive financial associations when they encounter subtle shape reminders in the environment resembling the thin human form, such as product packages.”

More indulgent spending

The study, “Costly Curves: How Human-Like Shapes Can Increase Spending,” showed that exposure to thin, human-like shapes influenced overweight consumers to make more indulgent spending decisions. On the other hand, thin or wide human-shaped forms had less influence on their thin counterparts.

“Across five experiments, we found that consumers with a high body mass index were more susceptible to thin-shape reminders,” said Romero. “Because high-BMI consumers feel dissimilar to a thin body type, seeing a thin shape made them feel less capable of managing their finances, leading to indulgent choices. In other words, mere reminders of the thin ideal can cause high-BMI consumers to feel worse about their own financial abilities, leading to a desire to indulge.”

One part of the study analyzed the effects of seeing thin shapes on credit card spending intentions. Participants viewed both thin and wide human-like shapes before mimicking a shopping scenario. Participants then evaluated how likely they would be to purchase an electronic product using their credit card, knowing that they would not be able to pay off the balance within three months. Romero and Craig found that high-BMI consumers were more willing to take on credit card debt after seeing a thin versus wide shape because they felt less capable of managing their spending impulses. In another part of the study, the authors found that exposure to thin human shapes increased preference to purchase a more expensive product such as Fiji water instead of a less expensive, generic store brand for consumers with high BMI.

Body shapes are powerful cues

The results of the study show that body shapes are powerful cues that can influence consumer spending preferences. The findings of the research should alert consumers to cues that might unknowingly alter their financial behavior.

The findings also have implications for weight management advocates. In particular, the results suggest that consumer advocates should be wary of reinforcing the link between weight, self-control and financial achievement since a strong association can lead to harmful decisions, especially for overweight consumers. The implications are particularly important given the negative consequences that such messages could have on consumers’ debt and spending levels.

Journal of Consumer Research

The study, “Costly Curves: How Human-Like Shapes Can Increase Spending,” can be found in the Journal of Consumer Research website.

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