Conspicuous Consumtion

This is in fact, remarkable to know how certain terms have vast theories to them and are coined from our very own behavioral patterns that decide how we choose and reflect our need of fashion demonstration. One of such term ‘conspicuous consumption’ which I recently encountered took my interest in a way that made me identify its placement or occurrences from one channel of consumer behavior with that of fashion on the other. “Its dominance of leisure in society and positioning of consumer.”

Definition of conspicuous in English

con·spic·u·ous  [kuhn-spik-yoo-uhs]  Show IPA


1.Easily seen or noticed; readily visible or observable: a conspicuous error.

2.Attracting special attention, as by outstanding qualities or eccentricities: He was conspicuous by his booming laughter.

Origin: 1535–45; < Latin conspicuus visible, conspicuous, equivalent to conspic (ere) (see conspectus) + -uus  deverbal adj. suffix; cf. contiguous, continuous, -ous

Related forms

con·spic·u·ous·ly, adverb

con·spic·u·ous·ness, con·spi·cu·i·ty  [kon-spi-kyoo-i-tee] Show IPA , noun


1. Manifest, noticeable, clear, marked, salient. 2. prominent, striking, noteworthy.


Pronunciation: /kənˈspɪkjʊəs/


  • clearly visible:he was very thin, with a conspicuous Adam’s apple
    •  attracting notice or attention:he showed conspicuous bravery


Conspicuous by one’s absence

Obviously not present where one or it should be: ratepayers grumbled that the police were conspicuous by their absence

[from a speech made by Lord John Russell in an address to electors (1859): taken from Tacitus (Annals iii. 76)]








Conspicuous Consumption Definition

Conspicuous consumption is a term introduced by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class” published in 1899.

The term refers to consumers who buy expensive items to display wealth and income rather than to cover the real needs of the consumer.

A flashy consumer uses such behavior to maintain or gain higher social status. Most classes have a flashy consumer affect and influence over other classes, seeking to emulate the behavior.

The result, according to Veblen, is a society characterized by wasted time and money.

This boom has seen a binge of consumption that for the first time human longevity might turn down because we are eating ourselves to death. Death by consumption used to explain a fatal case of tuberculosis, now it could explain the rise in obesity, diabetes and cancers.

That is, conspicuous displays of consumption and leisure were the means to demonstrate one’s superiority. Whether you were rich or poor everyone attempts to impress others and seek to gain advantage through “conspicuous consumption” and the ability to engage in “conspicuous leisure”.

Consumption is used as a way to gain and signal status. Through “conspicuous consumption” often came “conspicuous waste,” which Veblen detested. Much of modern advertising premised on the “gotta have” society is built upon a Veblenian notion of consumption and rivalry.

The Evolution of Conspicuous Consumption

Veblen used conspicuous consumption to depict the upper class that formed in the 19th century as a result of the Second Industrial Revolution.

With the growth of living standards and the emergence of the middle class during the 20th century this phenomenon appeared in far more households and individuals whose consumption pattern is governed by demonstrative assets, rather than actual, practical utility.

In the 20th century economist Paul Nystrom came up with the theory that changes in lifestyle that came with the industrial revolution led to massive expansion of the “pecuniary emulation.” In the 20th and 21st centuries we can also witness an expansion of conspicuous consumption associated with addictive or narcissistic behavior induced by consumerism, the desire for immediate gratification and a rise in hedonistic expectations.

While conspicuous consumption was originally intended as something exclusively for the rich, the latest research economists Kerwin Kofi Charles, Erik Hurst and Professor of Finance Nikolai Roussanova showed that this kind of behavior is widespread especially among the poorer social classes and emerging economies.

Issuance of wealth on display in these groups serves to conceal the impression that the person is poor. An example would be the use of oversized jewelries by low income groups. Also, during the 2011 riots in England, when shops were vandalized, high-end electronics and high-end fashion stores were robbed.

Veblen goods are luxury goods, and operate outside the boundaries of income effect, and there are many examples in the wine world.

A Veblen good is one for which demand increases when the price rises: behavior that goes against the flow of commonsense and common buying behavior.

A Veblen good is a good with a “snob value: status (or “showing off” status), as shown in the

Demand Curve of Veblen Good bellow:


The Demand Curve of Veblen goods

One doesn’t need to go too far to observe examples of conspicuous consumption in our society.

Fashion designer clothes are not a necessity; they serve the purpose to show that the person who wears them affords them and has a certain social status.

Haute Couture

Diamonds or jewelry in the broader sense, are other Veblen goods and so are high-end watches. One of the most cited Veblen goods are luxurious cars like Rolls Royce or Bentley.

Rolls Royes

Silverware is another example of conspicuous consumption. There is no added benefit of eating with a silver spoon. Besides that, taking care of the silverware is time consuming too as it requires regular polishing. The fact that they are used mainly when guests arrive shows that they are an item, whose main purpose is to show others the status of the owner.

But we could argue that fashion designer clothes may be a need in some cases or that luxurious cars have some functions that other regular cars don’t.

However, the “I am Rich” app was an app distributed on iOS that had no real purpose other than showing that the owner was able to purchase it.

The app cost $999.99 and in one day 8 apps were sold (6 in the US and 2 in Europe). The app did not have any practical utility; it just showed a red ruby that displayed a message when pressed.

Pet jewelries are another example of conspicuous consumption. Pets do not have any utility in wearing a diamond.

An expensive pet jewelry is only used to show others that the owner of the pet can afford to buy it.

Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies

By Yuniya Kawamura

From the chapter from adoption and consumption of fashion

On the other hand, Veblen’s classic study of conspicuous consumption and status symbols created an analytical framework that has been the staple of sociological study of consumer behavior. The basic premise of Vemblen’s discussion is similar to that of Simmel’s, but it was Vemlen who put the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ into general circulation. People acquire goods to compete with others. Fashion and clothing were used as symbols of social position and status. His theory explains the functions of fashion, which are clearly different from the functions of clothing – modesty and protection.

Conspicuous consumption

Niro Sivanathan and Nathan Pettit look at the reasons why low-income individuals tend to spend proportionally more on luxury goods than higher-income individuals.

Examinations of consumer behaviour have shown that low-income individuals spend a proportionally larger percentage of their money on the consumption of conspicuous goods than higher-income individuals. This behaviour, which seems to go against common sense, turns out to stem from the fact that luxury goods are not only status symbols, but they also provide lower-income consumers of such goods with psychological armour.

In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (May, 2010), Niro Sivanathan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, and Nathan Pettit, of Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, draw on psychological theory and research to show that when people feel that their egos are threatened, they are more inclined to buy high-status goods. If, however, they are presented with other means of alleviating their psychological pain, they are less likely to seek these kinds of products.

Sivanathan and Pettit’s article, “Protecting the self through consumption: Status goods as affirmational commodities” bolsters the growing body of literature on compensatory consumption. It proposes a psychological lens for the examination of conspicuous consumption, which has important implications for policy decisions aimed at battling consumer debt.

In discussing the findings of this study, the latest of his explorations of such issues, Sivanathan explains that “the economic explanation — that people purchase conspicuous goods because they want to signal positive things about themselves to others — felt incomplete”. He goes on to say that he and his co-author “wanted to delve into what causes people to act out their urge to purchase conspicuous goods, and more importantly what causes that urge in the first place. Our research shows that part of the impetus behind these consumption decisions is the desire to repair self-threat.”


The findings in this article are the result of four studies conducted by the authors, three involving panels of university students (a total for the three studies of slightly more than 250 students) and one involving a representative panel of 95 individuals drawn from the general US consumer population, who were provided by a marketing research firm.

The first of the studies examined whether or not individuals facing self-threat (that is, threats to their social selves or threats to their social esteem, status or acceptance) display a greater desire for high-status goods. When the 150 participants in that survey were given negative feedback about something they cared about — information that threatened their self-worth, the value they placed on high-status goods increased. Indeed, the survey showed that, when facing such a threat, individuals are willing to pay more for high-status goods, such as cars and watches, than when they are given positive or no feedback. This first study also showed that receiving negative feedback does not influence an individual’s desire to purchase non-status, run-of-the-mill goods. This suggests there is a unique relationship between feeling threatened and the desire to purchase high-status goods. The mere act of purchasing such a good — even when it is not visible to others — seems to provide a sense of comfort.

The second study, which was aimed at gaining a better understanding of the underlying psychological mechanism causing threatened individuals to consume status goods, involved providing the 65 respondents with an opportunity to affirm their self-worth after receiving negative feedback but before placing a value on a given item. Indeed, when the authors presented participants with the opportunity to reflect on values that are important to them (such as family relationships, health and well-being) before presenting them with a luxury good, their need to acquire the luxury good was diminished.

Self, beware

The third study explored the paradox that those earning the least spend the greatest fraction of their income on conspicuous consumption, that is, on goods that signal wealth. To examine this, Sivanathan and Pettit looked at the relationship between annual income, self-esteem and status consumption of a group of US consumers from 29 states. The 95 participants all completed a questionnaire that measured self-esteem and one’s sense of personal power and then were asked to read about a new car described as high status. After that, they were asked to decide what they would be willing to pay for the car. (To ensure that the different values were not a result of differences in knowledge about the luxury-car market, participants were also asked about their knowledge of that market.)

The analysis of the findings of this third study involved dividing the participants into two income groups, those with household incomes above the 2007 median US household income of $50,233, and those with incomes below the median. The results showed that, among other things, annual household income was significantly related to self esteem; this verified the belief that bruised self-esteem plays a role in the desire of low-income individuals to acquire status goods.

In the fourth study, the authors examined whether or not this seemingly irrational consumption decision provides a buffer against self-threats. Their examination of a panel of 54 university students found that it did, a finding that is significant in the context of ongoing national efforts to reduce household debt and that helps explain why economic incentives directed at motivating debt-ridden households to increase their savings have had little success.

In discussing their findings, however, the authors are careful to issue a caveat, warning that there is more to this problem than consumer behavior alone. “Certainly, the sole cause of consumer debt is not overspending on high-status goods, but that’s part of it,” Pettit says. “What facilitates overspending on conspicuous goods is both the psychology of the consumer and lenders who leniently extend credit to those most likely to spend beyond their means. It is important to consider revising lending policies that exacerbate the problem for the very people who are prone to engage in such behavior.”


Conspicuous Consumption Is Back

By Ben Steverman January 27, 2011

Rich Americans are not only shopping again. They’re showing off their purchases, despite an economy that still leaves millions of people jobless and underemployed.

To read more on this article




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