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Christmas Shopping Despite Corona: Why Cognitive Dissonance and Social Norms Are Hard to Shake Off
In the current lockdown, a good reason is needed to be out and about. Consequently, there has been a lot of discussion on shopping for Christmas presents, which many argue, should be cancelled this year. Nevertheless, people are lining up in Germany’s city centers before retailers close a week before Christmas. The reason: cognitive dissonance and social norms, says Prof. Jutta Roosen, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research at the TUM School of Management in a recent interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Just before Christmas, the stores are always particularly crowded, traditionally, the penultimate Sunday before Christmas is the busiest day of the year for many retailers. This year, people are supposed to stay home and only go into town for necessary errands, and yet massive numbers of people are swarming Germany’s city centers. “We are experiencing an exceptional situation right now, also when it comes to shopping. People lack an inner compass. They don’t know how to decide. On the one hand, there is the social norm of the opulent Christmas feast, which is so firmly anchored in our culture. On the other hand, new demands to withdraw socially have been announced”, explains Prof. Dr. Roosen. What emerges is a feeling of guilt. “We know the term guilt in the context of sustainability. An example: people know about the climate-damaging effects of air travel. While people don’t want to do without it on certain occasions, they also don’t want to feel guilty because of it. So they think of an acceptable compromise, e.g. one long-distance trip per year.” In psychology, the concept of cognitive dissonance describes exactly that situation. It is the same with smoking: “People know that smoking is harmful, but enjoy their cigarette anyway. Both beliefs are in conflict with one another, so humans have developed strategies to deal with such situations. In extreme cases, one simply blocks out certain things,” explains Prof. Roosen. And although the current corona pandemic cannot really be blocked out, many frolic between gift shelves despite the risk of infection. The explanation, Roosen knows, is social norm. “There is a very strong expectation in society of what a Christmas celebration should look like; that people give each other presents and that they celebrate the holidays in an appropriately festive way. It’s hard to break free from that norm.”
It’s difficult to go against entrenched norms and question one’s consumerism, especially around Christmas time. Still, the pandemic forces the question “What do I really need?” on all of us. “Consumer research has found that people often buy things because they actually want to achieve different goals. The gift for example: We know that when we give a gift, we also think about how the gift will work together with me as the giver, what message I’d like the gift to send to the recipient about our relationship. If you understand what the gift actually stands for, you can use it in a much better way,” explains Prof. Roosen. From her research, she also knows that the shopping experience itself plays a big role, possibly especially now that much else is off-limits. “Shopping can definitely become a substitute action in this situation; after all, we’re talking about a shopping experience. Of course, rules on how many people are allowed to enter a store help in reducing the number of customers in a store, but they don’t change people’s motivation. That’s why we see lines outside the stores.” If you want to change behavior long term, coercion is relatively unproductive. Instead, it comes down to an inner compass, explains Prof. Roosen: “In order to change one’s normal behavior – in this case, to question the seemingly obligatory Christmas shopping on a grand scale – one needs certainty, strength, and an inner drive. Then creative ideas and solutions can be found.”
The original interview “Den Menschen fehlt der innere Kompass” by Ekaterina Kel, published in Süddeutsche Zeitung on December 12th, can be found here.
Featured image by Sam Headland on Unsplash