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Editorial - Why our attraction to luxury goods starts at age six

Editorial Why our attraction to luxury goods starts at age six

Research has shown that children as young as six can show a preference for scarce goods.

First, let me start the week with a reminder that it is Valentine’s Day on Thursday, so don’t forget to inundate your lover with tokens of affection. Whether it is flowers, a romantic dinner or a nice watch doesn’t really matter. It’s the thought that counts. At the tender age of eight, there was no gesture more romantic for me than to offer the target of my affection a solitary chocolate. Because this was the year that Rowntree’s introduced a brilliant advertising campaign with the strapline “Do you love anyone enough to give them your last Rolo?”. Challenge accepted! Offering the last piece in the packet, after enjoying the rest of the chocolates filled with silky smooth caramel myself, thus became a potent symbol of love for the young romantic. This campaign ran for a phenomenal 23 years, long after Rowntree’s was acquired by Swiss giant Nestlé.

The Rowntree’s slogan may well lack the clout of “diamonds are forever”, but recent research has shown that the creative minds behind it may have cottoned on intuitively to something that we are capable of discerning from as young as six years old. In a recent paper (1), Alicia Melis and Daniel Read, of Warwick Business School, investigated the age at which the bias for scarce products develops. They studied human’s closest living primate relative, the chimpanzee, and found that, while chimpanzees and four year-old children did not show any preference for scarce goods, six year-old children did.

Dr Melis, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science, said: “One possibility could be that by the age of six children have learned to value unique products as something special. They may have learned that scarcity in itself is a valued feature that symbolises status or increased power to gain more resources, just as luxury goods do.”

I couldn’t help but see parallels with my Rolos in the test format for this study. Both the chimps and the children were given the choice of a wrapped good from a pile of identical boxes (the packet of Rolos in my example) or from a “pile” containing just a single similarly wrapped box (the “last” Rolo). If both the chimps and the children knew that someone else could choose after them, both went for the scarce item. Interestingly, when this element of competition was removed, only the boys still showed the scarcity preference. Professor Read concluded that “if this gender difference holds, it could mean that boys at the age of six have a stronger motivation to have something others don’t have.”

So now, gentlemen, you know where that passion for those unique-piece and limited-edition watches comes from. It is hard-wired inside your brain and has been there since you were a child. You can now confidently justify those extravagant spends to your wife or girlfriend based on scientific evidence. And if that still doesn’t wash, the same scientific study helps to explain why your wife or girlfriend doesn’t understand!

(1) John M, Melis AP, Read D, Rossano F, Tomasello M. The preference for scarcity: A developmental and comparative perspective. Psychol Mark. 2018;35:603–615.