The First Law of Consumer Behaviour: Why do we keep buying stuff?

Consumer behaviour is an intensely studied subject in a world that is dominated by consumption of goods and services. Psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, economists and many other highly trained scientists bundle together to influence the behaviour of consumers. Practically, how can a product be designed, positioned and advertised so that we can sell more jeans than the competition?

Our possessions are a major contribution to our identity and as such we can not understand consumer behaviour without understanding what meaning consumers attach to possessions.1 Using a theatrical metaphor, our possessions are the props we need to play the roles we have in society.2

We buy products for what they mean, not for what they do

Our self is, however, not a singular proposition. We carry a range of possible selves that represent our ideas of what we would like to become. These provide ideals of the self and function as incentives for future behaviour. Possible selves are the ideal selves that we would very much like to become. The tension between our real and ideal self is a major motivational force.3

In our quest to achieve the ideal self we need to have, among other things, the right possessions. This is the core of what most marketing is about. Create products that help people to signal their ideal self to others. This leads to the first law of consumer behaviour, beautifully illustrated by this advertisement by Swish Jeans:

The First Law of Consumer Behaviour: Real Self + Brand = Ideal Self

The First Law of Consumer Behaviour

Although we justify our purposes with the practicalities, in the end we all buy things for what they mean to us, not for what they do to us. This is not about being shallow, this is a core aspect of human behaviour that marketers use to sell more stuff.


  1. Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168.
  2. Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
  3. Hazel Markus, & Paula Nurius. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969.

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