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Shame on Us

Jim Wasserman  |  September 20, 2019

OVER 600 YEARS ago, Geoffrey Chaucer gave the world The Canterbury Tales, a caustic look at a cross-section of English society. While all the stories are still worth reading, one tale is especially relevant to today’s consumer.

For those who don’t remember The Canterbury Tales, it’s a story about a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury. They pass the time on the road by having a contest to see who can tell the best tale.

One of the travelers is a “pardoner” by profession. He describes how he goes from town to town, delivering a pat speech against greed. He then finishes by brandishing supposed holy “relics” of bones and clothing, including a mitten. These relics can purportedly absolve sins, solve problems and cure ailments.

The Pardoner invites all to pay a fee to interact with the relics and be publicly relieved of their troubles. But he also issues a dire public warning: Those whose sins are too great cannot be absolved by these relics, so they should remain in their seats and not even attempt to pay. The Pardoner then gleefully watches as most come forward, even those who doubt his authenticity, lest they be suspected by their peers of secret horrible sins.

Most people today don’t seek absolution, least of all by paying to put on a holy mitten. Still, Chaucer’s tale encapsulates a contemporary sales technique. The Pardoner is knowingly tapping into our nonrational, but very common, fear of public shame, or what we’ll call FOPS.

Paying for doubtful absolution is not based on rational factors, like cost or quality, but on concern that not utilizing the product will invoke social ostracism. It’s somewhat similar to the bandwagon effect or FOMO (fear of missing out) nudge, where people spend because they’re afraid of missing a good deal. But with FOPS, consumers know it’s a bad deal and yet they still waste money because, if they don’t participate, they might invite social backlash.

FOPS is very much a nudge for today’s world. Many a wise consumer will tell you how he or she felt something was a bad deal from the beginning, but couldn’t resist buying because of tacit pressure from friends or societal expectations. Salespeople can often close a deal with a hesitant buyer by saying, “Of course, if you need to see something less expensive….” Millennials may not know Chaucer’s Pardoner, but most can explain the context and meaning of, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.”

Phone shaming is one example. When one of our sons wanted his own cellphone in middle school, we bought him a Firefly, which was a sort of starter cellphone, where parents could limit calls. Initially ecstatic, our son quickly lost enthusiasm and begged us for an “adult” cellphone, not because he needed it, but because his friends said he had a “baby” phone. Even among adults, my iPhone 5S today invokes sneers of, “You still use that?” Yet it serves my needs—and at a much lower cost.

People aspiring to executive positions are often told what are the right neighborhoods to live in, the right country clubs to join and the right cars to have in the parking lot. These people, who have worked their way up to this rarified level, are money smart, yet even they knowingly squander money on non-necessities “because that’s what’s done.”

FOPS is a waste of both personal budgets and community resources. It perpetuates non-inclusive, non-innovative, inner circle thinking. At its worst, anyone who dares to act differently is seen as a threat to the system and “not one of us.” You even hear that millennials are wreaking havoc or killing industries by abstaining from certain products—as if consumers are meant to serve industries and their products, not the other way around.

Wasting money for fear of social repercussions? That sounds to me like a relic of the past.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Under AttackTerms of the Trade and When in Rome. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy,  Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.

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