The difference between rational and social purchase

I often find myself needing to explain this concept – which, unfortunately, is not exactly short nor straightforward. So: here’s this post about it.

How people buy

There’s 2 main decision making systems that propel people in life

1- What I like (passion/need – rational purchase)

2- What will make me liked by others (trait signalling – social purchase)

Here’s the 2 in detail

Buying because of passion (rational purchase)

These are the things we buy because we genuinely like them, regardless of what others might think of it.

They make us happy, or serve us well.

They make sense even without others’ opinions about them.


  • Buying a pickup truck, to have enough space for all the tools we need at work
  • Buying a piano, because we like to play it
  • Buying a gym membership, to stay healthy and powerful whilst not cramming our house with exercise equipment
  • Buying a sports car, to go race in the weekend at the track
  • Buying a soundtrack, to improve narration and artistic quality of our movie
  • Getting a PhD, to contribute to scientific development

Buying because of social aspirations (social purchase)

These are the things we buy because we want to influence how others perceive us.

They don’t have to make us happy, nor be useful – if they do either, it’s a byproduct.

They don’t make sense without others’ opinions about them.

As example:

  • Buying a pickup truck, to have a bigger car than the others and to look adventurous/crafty – or, in urbanite jargon: “manly”
  • Buying a piano, because we want people to think we’re classy
  • Buying a gym membership, to impress girls
  • Buying a sports car, to impress girls
  • Buying a soundtrack, because he who we’re buying it from is famous – and we want to shine with reflected light
  • Getting a PhD, to impress girls with an intellectual aura and try to make money through government funds (e.g. Research or being hired from schools), tricking people into thinking you’re actually interested and prepared about your field

When goods are bought because of this, they can be defined as “status symbols” – for the reason you can easily guess: they’re meant to signal a certain social status. Some sort of “social medals” that people arbitrarily pin on themselves, so to speak.

Which ones do we enjoy?

You don’t enjoy social purchases: you use them to build your persona.

Their purpose is to create an artificial appearance of yourself, so to influence the way others treat you. Most often, with the purpose of acquire membership to a social group, so to enjoy its favors (e.g. Employment, social validation, sexual attention, money…).

Often, but not always, not only you don’t enjoy social purchases: you grind your teeth and go through them. Which is the reason because many describe the process with which they acquired their skills as gruesome: they didn’t enjoy it because what they were after was power – so, acquiring skills was just an awful grind.

Think of social purchases as some sort of social equivalent of a badge (which is what they actually are: status symbols). So to prove membership to a club – and be eligible for its benefits.

Rational purchases, on the other hand, are the ones we truly enjoy: they either make us happy (e.g. Playing a piano) or help us create something (e.g. A pickup truck with a large bed, so to load quickly and easily our jackhammer and power generator). They bring joy to our life.

Yes, even a large pickup bed to load your jackhammer and power generator brings joy: ever felt the joy of having exactly the right tools for your work? With which everything in your craft flows beautifully? Same joy you can feel when back at home, tired after a hard day of work – but knowing you’ve done good, and spent your day meaningfully.

Why do people end up using status symbols, rather than just being themselves and let others genuinely appreciate what they are?

This is a very complex topic, worth an entire book about it.

Summarizing very quickly, here’s the logical process:

since there’s people too lazy to bother genuinely understand what they see (reason), and want shortcuts (status symbols)

…other dishonest ones are profiting from this deficiency, tricking them by adorning themselves with status symbols that signal traits that don’t actually belong to them.

Or, using scientific jargon (biology): dishonest signalling. Like those flies who paint themselves black and yellow, to make you think they’re super dangerous paper wasps.

On the left, one of mother nature’s nastiest creations (paper wasp). On the right, a harmless fly who pretends to be one of them (Myathropa florea).

Further reading

Here’s a good start about the basics of this topic:

Bonus track: how do we spot someone who purchased socially?

A very simple, but extremely effective test, is to question them about their purchase. Not in a malevolent way, of course: be genuine, polite (not formal) and curious. Which is also a good overall attitude towards just about everything in life.

That will send social purchasers haywire, for 2 reasons:

  1. The purpose of the social purchase is to signal a status. So, if you question it, you’ll be either seen as an attacker to their status, or as a witness that this status symbol is not effective and its bearer is a fraud – both scenarios to be met with hostility (an enemy to win, or an undesired witness to get rid of)
  2. They don’t have a rational explanation about why they did it – and, at the same time, they don’t want to look stupid. Because that would be detrimental to their social value, and therefore aspirations. So, very likely, you’ll be again in the “undesired witness” scenario – and they’ll try to get rid of you. Usually, by defamation (psychological projection: since fame is all they’re about, they’ll strike you where it hurts the most for them).
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