The idea of exclusivity has long been used to jack up prices on luxury cars, liquors, and fashion, but exactly how much do people value exclusive goods? Enough to pay a premium of 50 percent or more, according to Chicago Booth’s Alex Imas and London School of Economics’ Kristóf Madarász. The reason reflects a deep-seated aspect of human nature: we put greater value on things that other people want but can’t have, just because they can’t have them.
“It isn’t intentional meanness,” Imas says. “It’s more subconscious. The desire to possess something that others want exclusively is a great passion of human nature.”
Related ideas on a quest for dominance and superiority have been around for centuries in the writings of philosophers and religious leaders including Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Martin Luther King Jr. Traditional economic models, however, have yet to consider such motives as driving important aspects of both individual behavior and markets. So Imas and Madarász developed a theoretical framework and conducted two experiments involving almost 400 participants to explore the impact and value of exclusion and exclusivity.
The findings could have broad implications not only for marketing products but also for explaining exclusionary policies by businesses and governments aiming to exploit the psychology of dominance seeking. The motive they identify can potentially rationalize political attitudes on redistribution, immigration, and trade, and may also help explain part of the recent tide of nationalism swamping global politics.
The researchers suggest that the quest for superiority through exclusion, which they call “mimetic dominance-seeking,” may potentially be a fundamental psychological force. Mimetic basically means “imitative” or “reflective”; building on the late literary scholar René Girard’s theory that human desires are inherently reflective or imitative of the desires of others, the researchers suggest that “mimetic desires” give way to conflict and result in a fight for dominance. They argue that a person’s desire for something is a reflection of how much others want it and how many of them can’t have it.