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Green-eyed monster could be good for business

21 Nov 2018

Encouraging envy between consumers could boost your business, according to a USC researcher shedding new light on how it drives consumer behaviour.

Psychologist Dr Darren Boardman said despite its bad reputation, envy was an important social emotion and his research had unlocked insights into how service providers could manage it for their benefit.

“Consumers often seek services they can use to increase their social status and can become envious if outperformed by other consumers,” said Dr Boardman who recently graduated with a PhD from USC’s School of Business.

“Experiencing envy can motivate a person to either try harder or become hostile and critical, however previous research has had difficulty explaining why people responded in either a positive or negative way.”

Dr Boardman has now discovered that people’s reaction often depended on whether they believed the other consumer deserved the better service.

“For example, if a consumer sees an airline randomly giving someone a free upgrade to business class this may increase the risk of them complaining or refusing to use the airline,” he said.

“However, if there is a clear reason why this consumer deserves the upgrade, such as being loyal to the airline, this can encourage others to engage more with the service to try to gain the same benefits.

“Knowing these triggers may help businesses better understand how to design a service to gain or retain customers.”

Dr Boardman’s research identified several services used by consumers to boost their social status such as higher education, and premium airline, beauty, personal training and fitness services.

After several years working as a private psychologist in Gympie, a desire for a career change led to Dr Boardman devoting the past few years to researching the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ phenomenon.

“I was looking for a new challenge career-wise and returned to university to develop skills that would complement my psychology background,” he said.

“Surprisingly, there had been little research examining how envy influences consumer behaviour and so there was scope to make an original contribution to the body of knowledge.”

Dr Boardman has a long history with USC. He was part of the first intake of students when it opened its Sunshine Coast campus in 1996.

“It is hard to know where to begin to explain how much I gained from completing a PhD,” he said.

“Apart from the specific research-related skills you develop, it is also a very personal journey where you discover your limitations and somehow find it in you to overcome them. In short, it was a very humbling but empowering experience.”

— Clare McKay

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