A couple of posts back, I wrote about commodity theory and how the scarcity of an item makes it seem more valuable and more desirable. What I didn’t write about, however, was a possible mechanism for this interaction between scarcity and value – why would a rare thing be seen as valuable by your average consumer? Possibly it’s because people want to feel at least moderately unique, and possessing something rare is one way of feeling like you’ve achieved that. It depends on the culture you look at, of course, since the need-for-uniqueness can vary greatly depending on whether a culture is historically individualist or collectivist, although perhaps those differences are being diminished slowly through globalisation. Whatever the case, research has shown that people in more individualist societies (so-called “Western” societies, I guess) certainly react negatively to being told that they are, in fact, actually very similar to other people. Also, expressing your uniqueness via consumption is relatively safe (most people are unlikely to do something so unique that they end up going off the scale of social standards and become a social outcast) and relatively affordable (depending on what you want to buy to make yourself feel unique).
The need for uniqueness feeds into consumerism by putting people on the quest to define and accentuate their uniqueness by acquiring products – the rarer, the more valuable, the better. A problem pointed out in this research paper is that, at least in American society (and probably a few others), this creates a catch-22 consumer carousel – you buy a product that is rare in order to make yourself feel unique, but chances are that through media and advertising other people will become aware of that same product and also buy it, diminishing its rarity and eroding your sense of uniqueness, putting you on a quest to find yet another item that’ll make you feel unique. As long as people feed this need to distinguish themselves from others and feel unique, they may very well continue to purchase extensively without actually achieving any sense of success.