Buying a Car Before You Can Drive

A New York Times article some time ago reported that people who could not drive were nonetheless purchasing cars. A survey of more than 2,500 British women found 63 per cent intentionally bought clothes that were too small for them. Why would people buy things they are unable to use?

Marketing wisdom and common sense suggests they are optimists. Elaine Chan, Jaideep Sengupta and Anirban Mukhopadhyay took that as the starting point of research into how and why optimism inspires “anticipatory purchases” and what the limits to that might be.

Their focus was on purchases made out of desire rather than practical purposes such as stockpiling.

“A consumer who makes an anticipatory purchase is unable to properly use the purchased product without first taking some necessary actions, such as taking lessons or losing weight,” they said.

“Expectations about the future should therefore be an important driver of such purchases. Optimists tend to expect things to go their way and believe good things will happen to them.”

Prior research, however, has been divided on the mechanisms that drive the optimists’ behaviour – are they intensely focused on their goal or, conversely, do they think the goal is easier to reach than pessimists? The authors have argued both routes are viable and lead to different outcomes under different circumstances.

In particular, the availability of cognitive resources could determine which route the consumer focused on and this in turn could mediate the effect of optimism on anticipatory purchase.

They showed how this could work in five experiments that manipulated the cognitive load and focal route. Some participants were cognitively unconstrained (such as having to remember a two-digit number) or more heavily constrained (such as remembering an eight-digit number). Some were asked to visualise the outcome of owning a certain product, such as a pair of jeans that were one size too small, others the process required to get there, such as taking lessons to learn a musical instrument. In one experiment participants were asked questions to assess their underlying motivations – in particular, how easy it would be to take the steps to fit into smaller jeans (process focus), and how they thought they would look in them (outcome focus). All of these measures were compared with purchase decisions that were also part of the experiments.

The results showed that while optimists were indeed more likely to make anticipatory purchases, the likelihood of this varied under certain conditions. If their focus was explicitly directed to the process – that is, how they could achieve the steps needed to use the product – optimists were more likely to make the purchase. They were less likely to do so if the focus was on the outcome, although still more likely than pessimists.

This effect was moderated, however, under different cognitive loads. Participants in unconstrained cognitive conditions had time to visualise the process and were still more likely to purchase because of this. But when the cognitive load was increased, the effect was reduced because it lowered perceptions of process ease. However, if participants were directed to focus instead on the outcome, then optimists were more likely to make an anticipatory purchase.

“Either process or outcome can lead optimists to engage in anticipatory purchases, but under very different conditions,” the authors said.

“If they are cognitively unconstrained, their optimism will enhance purchase likelihood only when they imagine the process required to use the product.

“If they are cognitively constrained, then focusing on the likely benefits of the purchase rather than the process will lead to an enhanced purchase likelihood for optimists.”

The results have implications for marketers and policy makers. “Marketers may take heart from the finding that a key antecedent to anticipatory purchase – optimism – may be easily influenced through situational means, such as asking consumers to recall optimistic behaviours that they previously engaged in. At the same time, they should keep in mind the thought focus of consumers at the time of their purchase decision. For example, where customers may have more time to deliberate, marketers should not only induce them to think optimistically, but direct them to think about the processes involved in using the product.

“Policy makers and social marketers might be interested in the implications of our findings on diminishing unnecessary wastage caused by unfulfilled expectations. They might want to consider focusing attention on the required process at the point when consumers are cognitively loaded. Alternatively, they could encourage consumers to take steps to use products potentially bought in a fit of optimism.”

All of which would be good news to car retailers, music instructors, weight loss clinics and the like.


Synergis – Geoffrey YEH Professor of Business, Chair Professor


Associate Provost (Teaching & Learning), Provost Office, Lifestyle International Professor of Business, Chair Professor