Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 22, 2019

Does Your Personality Make You a Holiday Season Scrooge?

by Sara J. Weston and David M. Condon
man handing over credit card

The holiday season can bring out the best and the worst in us. Do you make a spreadsheet of the gifts you will give? Do you check it twice? Or, are you anxiously stalking the aisles of the 24-hour Walmart on Christmas Eve? Do you sacrifice the hair off your head to make sure you can present your family with gifts, or do you regift and penny-pinch?

Discretionary spending habits are always highly personal, but this is particularly evident when it comes to spending during the holiday season. We can choose to spend our money on gifts, travel, parties, or nothing at all. We’re either ready to catch the early season deals (who’s up for 6 am Black Friday sales?) or we’re sifting through what’s left in stores at the last minute. These spending behaviors—how much we spend and when we spend it—might be reflections of our broader personalities. 

To examine differences in how people approach holiday shopping, we collaborated with the team behind a money management phone app based in the UK. For the privacy of our participants, we won’t say which one, but it was one of those apps that connect to your bank accounts and credit cards in order to track your transactions over time. About 1,900 of the app users were given a survey that included a short personality measurement and allowed us to access data about their financial transactions on their app.  We then examined how five major personality traits related to the amount of money spent between November 1 and December 31, adjusting for income and typical spending in a two-month period.

We found that people who scored high on the trait of openness to experience—people who are more creative, like intellectual puzzles, enjoy art, and try new things—spent less during the season than people who scored low on openness—on average between £1000 and £4000 (roughly $1300-$5000 USD) less over two months. It’s not clear why this is the case. Perhaps people who are high in openness save money by making gifts instead of buying them, or maybe they’re celebrating the holidays in less traditional—and less costly—ways. It’s also important to note that we don’t know what people are spending their money on. Some of the difference may be gift-related, but it might also include travel, events, gym memberships… anything at all.

In addition, people who were higher in trait neuroticism spent less during the holidays. People who are high in neuroticism tend to feel negative emotions more frequently and more strongly, and their emotions are more likely to bounce around.  People high in neuroticism spent less than people who were more “emotionally stable” (on average between £800 and £2000 less over two months). Again, we can only speculate as to why. Maybe people who experience more negative emotions worry more about their finances and avoid spending too much as a consequence.

We were surprised to find that extraversion was not related to spending. Because extraverts have more friends and are more likely to attend parties, we thought that they might buy more gifts or prepare more for holiday gatherings and, thus, spend more money. However, extraverts did not spend more than introverts during the holiday season, at least compared to their typical spending pattern.

Interestingly, personality traits were also not related to when people spent the most money over the holidays. We expected that personality would be associated with behaviors such as taking advantage of early sales and shopping at the last minute, but the evidence did not support this. But remember that this study was conducted in the United Kingdom, so Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales didn’t impact our participants’ shopping behavior.  

What does this mean for you? First, we did not measure the amount people spent compared to their budgets.  So, our results don’t say that people who score high on openness or neuroticism spend too little, only that they spend less than they typically do in a two-month period.

Second, these results might signal to companies that customers with certain personality profiles are more or less likely to spend over the holidays than others. Advertising, especially through websites, is becoming more and more specific, and this research could be used to attract holiday spenders. The tricky part is that we don’t know exactly what people are spending their money on during this season—whether they are paying for gifts, trips, parties, or whatever—so it’s hard to know which companies might benefit from this kind of targeting. All in all, our research shows that personality does impact people’s behavior during the holiday season, but we still have a lot to learn about how and why. 


For Further Reading

Weston, S. J., Gladstone, J. J., Graham, E. K., Mroczek, D. K., & Condon, D. M. (2019). Who are the scrooges? Personality predictors of holiday spending. Social Psychological and Personality Science10(6), 775-782.

Landis, B., Gladstone, J. (2017). Personality, Income, and Compensatory Consumption: Low-Income Extraverts Spend More on Status. Psychological Science 86, 1-3. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797617714811

 

Sara J. Weston is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.

David M. Condon is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, and he built and manages the personality assessment website, www.sapa-project.org.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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