Research Roundup: Fiscal Fatal Attraction, the Idiosyncrasies of Entrepreneurs and the Value of Luxury Hiding in Plain Sight

Are big spenders attracted to the stingy — and does it lead to blissful matrimony? Why are certain people more likely to take the entrepreneurial leap? How can subtle branding help retailers attract a high-end niche customer base? Wharton professors Deborah Small, Nikolai Roussanov and Jonah Berger, respectively, examined these issues — and their broader implications — in recent research papers.

How Money Impacts Marriage

When it comes to marriage, do opposites attract? Or do birds of a feather flock together? While men and women are known to gravitate toward mates with personal qualities similar to their own in most respects, Wharton marketing professor Deborah Small found the opposite to be true when it comes to money.

In the paper, “Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage,” Small, University of Michigan marketing professor Scott I. Rick and Northwestern University psychology professor Eli J. Frankel find that stingy spenders tend to marry those who splurge freely, and vice versa. The pattern amounts to “fatal attraction,” the researchers argue, because it causes conflicts over money and thus has a negative effect on marital well-being.

“There’s a lot of academic literature and interest in individual decision making, [but what has been] largely neglected is that people are often making decisions jointly and the outcomes of financial decisions affect other people,” Small says. “It’s important to understand that even though two individuals are involved in a decision and are being affected by it, their attitudes and preferences may not be aligned.”

The majority of relationship research suggests that people are attracted to those with similar demographic characteristics, attitudes, values and even names. But Small and her co-authors based their hypothesis of spendthrift/tightwad attraction on a theory that men and women also tend to seek out a mate who has qualities that are the stark opposite of those they most strongly deplore in themselves — in this case, the tendency to spend too much or too little.

Indeed, participants who fell to either extreme of the “spendthrift-tightwad” scale in one test administered by the researchers were particularly dissatisfied by this aspect of their personalities, a tendency that did not exist for other qualities included in the survey, including price consciousness and attraction to sales. Two subsequent experiments asked different sets of respondents to rate their own and their spouses’ behavior on the spendthrift-tightwad scale. In both cases, the researchers found that stingy spenders were more likely to be married to profligates and high-rollers gravitated toward the miserly.

People might think “that someone on the other end of the spectrum might heal them in some way,” Rick notes. “If I’m a tightwad, I want to find a spendthrift to loosen me up, because tightwads by definition want to loosen up. Spendthrifts also by definition want to change their behavior…. They might think that an opposite would help reel in that misbehavior. That [is not] what we find.”

Even though these couples may have assumed that marrying an opposite when it came to money would balance out their own behavior and lead to greater financial health, Small and her co-authors discovered that such matches did not necessarily make for happier relationships. Indeed, the research shows that conflicts over money created more marital strife for these “opposites attract” couplings. “We have some findings suggesting that two spendthrifts are happier than a spendthrift and a tightwad [even though] two spendthrifts are much more likely to end up in debt and have other financial problems,” Small says. “It’s not clear that what makes you happier is also going to make you more financially secure.”

One of the areas the researchers plan to explore in the future is how the different ways couples manage their money are related to marital well-being. According to Small, the current findings suggest that couples should talk about financial habits and practices early on in a relationship, and form a set of shared expectations, plans and goals. “I think doing that helps people recognize if the differences are too broad to overcome,” she adds.

What Makes Entrepreneurs Tick?

“Entrepreneurs create so much wealth in our society, but we don’t understand what makes a person become an entrepreneur,” says Wharton finance professor Nikolai Roussanov. “This question of ‘why’ is fascinating for economists because entrepreneurs benefit society as a whole to such a great degree. We would be worse off without them.”

In a recent paper, “Diversification and Its Discontents: Idiosyncratic and Entrepreneurial Risk in the Quest for Social Status,” Roussanov takes a look at his own and other research on entrepreneurial behavior, risk-return analysis and social aspirations to draw answers to the question, “Why do certain people take the entrepreneurial leap?”

His conclusion is that entrepreneurs have unique social aspirations that other people typically don’t share. “They weigh risks and outcomes differently,” he notes, which leads to atypical, but rational, conclusions about risks and opportunities. Contrary to common perception, entrepreneurs are not less averse to taking chances; they simply view relative hazards with a different eye.

Socially, Roussanov says, aspiring entrepreneurs do not want to merely keep up with the proverbial Jones; they want to get marginally ahead of them. “Absolute wealth is not as important to them as relative wealth.” Entrepreneurs also save more and spend less as a portion of their incomes than other people, according to Roussanov. The consumptive value of money isn’t their motivation. Rather it’s the social esteem that comes with achieving incrementally greater wealth than they had previously, and than their perceived peer group has. Of course, “Who ‘the Jones’ are changes as you progress,” Roussanov points out. “First you think, ‘I know these guys are successful and I would like to be like them.’ But as you progress, you change your comparisons. You want to be in the Forbes 400, then in the top 10 and so forth.”

In his paper, Roussanov notes that “if the satisfaction brought by ‘getting ahead of the Joneses’ outweighs the danger of falling behind, risky activities with highly idiosyncratic payoffs, such as entrepreneurship, can be particularly attractive.” By contrast, “Other people may not have this preference for status. They look at the risks and say, ‘This is too much for me.’”

What is perplexing about an entrepreneur’s endeavors, Roussanov adds, is that, “from an economist’s point of view, the risk in entrepreneurial ventures is high.” These people “commit a large fraction of their human and financial capital to their ventures, thus exposing themselves to large undiversified risks,” he writes in the paper. “Economic theory predicts that higher risk should be compensated by higher average return, [yet] returns on undiversified entrepreneurial investments are no higher than the average return on publicly traded equity.”

In other words, in terms of making money, “if an entrepreneur just wanted good returns, he would do better with the stock market,” Roussanov says. But entrepreneurs have great faith in themselves. “They see the idiosyncratic risks — the ones specific to their business and skills — as easier to bear than the aggregate risk in the stock market or the broader economy.”

Most entrepreneurs don’t launch their ventures intending to fail or hoping to do merely okay. They might crunch the numbers to see what they need to make to break even, but while they are doing so, they are imagining themselves as the next [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg or [Virgin Group CEO] Richard Branson. “The person deciding to be an entrepreneur should think through what motivates him [or her]. Is he doing it only because he wants to get rich, or because he wants to see this project succeed, or to work for himself or to have a better quality of life?” Roussanov notes. “If it’s just [about] getting rich, he should rethink things because it’s not the typical risk-reward of portfolio investments.”

Entrepreneurs and the people around them also need to appreciate that atypical thinking is not necessarily irrational, Roussanov says. “Do you recognize the possibility that you might fail or succeed? If you evaluate the outcomes properly, then you know you’re approaching this rationally. You just weigh the potential outcomes differently and are willing to take risks others might not because of it…. Optimism and overconfidence are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.”

For Luxury Goods Aficionados, Knowledge Equals Wealth

Many consumers buy high-end products to signal wealth and status to those around them, aided by explicit branding such as a large Mercedes symbol on the front of a car. But if consumers buy expensive goods in part to clearly communicate things like status to others, why would shoppers spend thousands of dollars on handbags or other goods that have no visible logos?

In the paper, “Subtle Signals of Inconspicuous Consumption,” Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger and Morgan Ward, a marketing professor at Southern Methodist University, suggest that manufacturers of consumer goods wanting to sell to a high-end, niche customer base should offer exclusive product lines with smaller logos and more subtle branding elements. Based on studies of consumer preference among ordinary shoppers and those who were more fashion conscious, the researchers found that “insiders” in a given consumption range (e.g., fashionistas, car enthusiasts, etc.) prefer products that identified them as being “in the know” only to a select group of peers.

The consumer study groups examined products with both highly visible branding, such as the word “Gucci” emblazoned in tall letters on a handbag, and more subtle signals of price — for example, the signature cherry-red soles on Christian Louboutin shoes. 

The majority of “typical” consumers preferred the products with larger brand identifiers, and tended to misidentify products with subtler branding. Among products with subtle signals, “typical” consumers “thought the high-priced options were no more expensive than their cheap alternatives,” the authors write. But the “insiders,” in this case fashion students or people with an affinity for high fashion, not only could tell the difference between a low-cost generic item and a high-priced item with a tiny logo, but also preferred the subtly-branded products.

To understand such “insider” shoppers, companies need to realize that the handbag these shoppers carry or shoes they wear is largely about sending signals, Berger notes, almost like communicating a coded message to members of a select group. “A Rolex is a widely recognized status symbol, but might be looked down upon by true watch enthusiasts,” the paper states. “A Vacheron Constantin, on the other hand, will be invisible to most people, but respected by watch aficionados.”

Another lesson, conversely, is that being selective with branding techniques comes with risk. A consumer goods company that wants to target high-end shoppers might select a subtle pattern or small logo, but that could turn off the majority of shoppers — those who can’t tell the difference between a cheaper product and the expensive item.”Most people think a $6,000 Bottega Veneta bag is no more expensive that a cheap Wal-Mart bag that has no logo,” Berger says.

According to Berger and Ward, from the point of view of an “insider,” being identified as such is vitally important, to the point that they will opt for possibly being mistaken for lower-end shoppers by the masses in exchange for recognition by their fellow high-fashion fans. The researchers also suggest that “discretely marked products, subtle but distinct styles or high-end brands that fly beneath the radar” have a longer life on the market than their less expensive, more loudly branded alternatives.

“The value of signals is that they distinguish social groups, so when outsiders start copying insiders’ signals, insiders may abandon that product and search for a new signal,” Berger says. “Because explicit signals, like large logos, are easier to observe, they are more likely to be poached or copied, and thus more likely to eventually be abandoned in favor of a new group marker.”

That has clear implications for products with explicit brand markings, even on expensive high-end products. “Explicit status symbols may generate large sales in the short term, but this will only persist if enough of the buyers are truly wealthy,” the researchers write. “If not, the symbolic value will shift towards being a marker of the wannabe rich, and sales will decline as consumers search for the next aspirational symbol.”

More generally, the researchers suggest, the role of wealth as a status marker is changing, being replaced by knowledge or “cultural capital.” With the expansion of credit and leasing programs, and the wider availability of knockoff items, “it is a lot easier now for someone who is not truly wealthy to be able to purchase something that seems expensive,” Berger notes. “Cultural capital, though, remains elusive. Acquiring the right knowledge requires time, effort and the right connections — things that are hard to fake.”

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