12/18/2012 04:04 pm ET

'Bling Culture' Not Unique To Minority Groups, Study Says

We can't all be Rihanna, unapologetically professing our love for the sparkly wonderment formerly known in hip-hop circles as "bling." Not without being judged for it, that is.

It's a theory Ohio State psychology professor Philip Mazzocco and fellow researchers from Northwestern Univeristy set out to explore in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology recently.

The premise: That racial minorities spend a larger portion of their incomes than whites do on conspicuous consumption, buying products that suggest high status.

But what Mazzocco and his colleagues found is that African Americans aren't the only ones who fall prey. "Minorities don’t buy high-status products because of some ‘bling culture.’ It is a basic psychological tendency that we all share when we’re feeling inferior in some part of our life,” Mazzocco said in a release on the study by Ohio State.

“Anyone who is feeling low in status is going to try to compensate. And in our capitalistic, consumption-oriented society, one way to compensate is to buy high-status products,” he said.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers examined both black and white Americans' attitudes toward specific products, as well as how they imagined themselves living within certain demographic characteristics.

In the first test of 146 adults, blacks had more positive evaluations of products labeled as high-status, including a fur coat, cuff links, caviar, an Italian suit and Italian loafers, than did whites. More importantly, blacks who considered their race to be an important part of their identity rated high-status goods higher than did blacks who had lower racial identification, the report says, noting that there was no such difference among whites in the study.

A second experiment among 117 white college students looked at the role that status plays in conspicuous consumption by asking participants to write a story in which they imagined themselves as a character with certain demographic characteristics, including income.

Participants were later asked to rate the desirability of low- and high-status products the way their character would, revealing that those who had imagined themselves as a black character rated the high-status products as more desirable than did the white students who imagined themselves as white characters.

“It suggests that people don’t like being in a low-status situation, and they compensate for that by trying to acquire high-status products," Mazzocco said of his findings, adding that the insights may help people make wiser choices as they shop.

“If you’re in a store and find yourself craving an expensive 60-inch flat-screen TV, think about why you want it. It may not be because of the positive attributes of the TV, but because you have a feeling of low status in some part of your life at that time."

According to a report released by market-research firm Nielsen and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) earlier this year, African-American spending is on pace to reach $1 trillion by the year 2015. Some of the driving forces for that growth include increasing use of social media, a lower median age for African-Americans compared to the U.S. population as a whole and higher-earning black households in the areas they surveyed.



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