I am what I do, not what I have: the differential centrality of experiential and material purchases to the self

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Jun;102(6):1304-17. doi: 10.1037/a0027407. Epub 2012 Feb 27.


What kinds of purchases do the most to make us happy? Previous research (Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003) indicates that experiences, such as vacations and concerts, are more likely to do so than material possessions, such as clothes and electronic gadgets. The present research was designed to explore 1 potential explanation for this result, namely, that experiences tend to be more closely associated with the self than possessions. The authors first show that people tend to think of their experiential purchases as more connected to the self than their possessions. Compared with their material purchases, participants drew their experiential purchases physically closer to the self (Study 1), were more likely to mention them when telling their life story (Study 2), and felt that a purchase described in terms of its experiential, rather than its material, qualities would overlap more with their sense of who they are (Study 4). Participants also felt that knowing a person's experiential purchases, compared with their material purchases, would yield greater insight into that person's true self (Studies 3A-3C). The authors then show that the tendency to cling more closely to cherished experiential memories is connected to the greater satisfaction people derive from experiences than possessions (Study 5).

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Ego*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Happiness*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory*
  • Middle Aged
  • Personal Satisfaction*
  • Social Identification
  • Young Adult