updated 2/17/2011 10:48:56 AM ET 2011-02-17T15:48:56

Beware the impulse buy or unusual gift, especially if the item pushes the boundaries of your personal style.

When shoppers purchase an item that doesn't match their other belongings, they tend to become both frustrated and motivated, a new study found. Instead of returning the item, these shoppers buy even more stuff that will make the new possession feel more at home.

"If you're going to go out and shop for something and you see it has a unique design, maybe you should stop and think whether or not this fits with what you already have at home," said Henrik Hagtvedt, a marketing professor at Boston College. "If it doesn't, the price might be a lot larger than what you actually purchased."

"You might end up buying things to match this for God knows how long," he added. "It could lead to a virtually never-ending process of just buying more."

That cycle of spending is familiar to many, Hagtvedt said.

The 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, for one, wrote an essay about an elegant red dressing gown that he had received as a gift. As soon as Diderot put the garment on, his study looked scruffy to him in comparison, which led him to redecorate the entire thing, with new drapes, furniture, a clock and more. By the end of the essay, the philosopher realized that one beautiful object had both depleted his finances and made him deeply unhappy.

To test this seemingly common experience, Hagtvedt and colleague Vanessa Patrick, of the University of Houston, began by giving a pendant and $5 to 56 women, presumably as a welcome gift before the start of some other kind of experiment. The women were told that they could exchange the pendant for another $5. Or they could exchange the money for a pair of earrings that matched the pendant.

What they chose to do depended on what their gift looked like, Hagtvedt and Patrick reported in the Journal of Marketing Research. Among a group of women who were given a plain, translucent orange pendant, 86 percent chose to return it for money, while 14 percent bought the earrings. When given a more unique and colorful striped pendant, on the other hand, just 14 percent sold it back, and 57 percent went for the matching jewelry.

In a similar experiment, participants were shown pictures of either a plain and boxy red armchair or a version with curved edges, unusual angles and other provoking design elements. They also saw an ordinary living room that would suit the plain chair but would make the more stylish chair look out of place.

After imagining that they had bought the chair and were going to put it in the living room, more than 60 percent of people who had seen the high-design chair said they'd buy more furniture to match it, while about 25 percent would return it. Among those who had seen the plain chair, though, less than 20 percent said they would buy more stuff, and more than 60 percent would return it.

A third experiment found comparable results with high-design and low-design shoes. Men and women responded in similar ways. And in general, it was the interaction between two distinct emotions that determined what people ultimately chose to do.

In cases of aesthetic mismatch, frustration ruled. In cases where people simply felt bad about a purchase, regret was the more powerful emotion.

"Regret kind of causes us to undo what you've done," Hagtvedt said. "Frustration causes us to do more to fix this."

Those kinds of feelings and behaviors are not necessarily bad, said Mark Bergen, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, Twin Cities.

"There is value to design, there is value to uniqueness and there is value to fashion," Bergen said. "And I am not sure you should be overly worried as a customer if you find something interesting. Finding things that match it makes sense."

"If buying a nice scarf makes your coat feel old and ratty, that might be a reason to not buy a nice scarf," he added. "But sometimes I wonder if it doesn't mean it's time to buy a new coat."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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