Skip to main content

Pricey Handbags and Helpful Behavior Don’t Mix

Brand-name luxury outlets provide visual reminders of materialistic values, decreasing pedestrians’ inclination to help strangers.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: deepwarren/Flickr)

Are you the sort of person who will come to the aid of a struggling stranger?

The answer may depend on the specific shops lining the street where the two of you meet.

Newly published research finds customers emerging from prestigious, luxury-brand stores in Paris were less likely than passersby to provide urgent requested assistance. While that news may confirm stereotypes about the self-involved one percent, a second finding suggests a more subtle psychological effect.

The researchers report pedestrians who were approached near such famous-brand outlets were less helpful than those who were stopped on a nearby residential street. It seems such stores embody the ethos of materialism, and just being in their immediate proximity can negatively affect one’s behavior.

“Cues related to possession, luxury, and prestige” can apparently trigger a me-first mindset, decreasing one’s likelihood of helping a stranger, according to a research team led by Lubomir Lamy of Paris Descartes University. The researchers’ study is published in the journal Social Influence.

Who knew strolling down Rodeo Drive was hazardous to your moral health?

Lamy and his colleagues conducted three experiments. The first featured 80 pedestrians (40 men and 40 women) who were “walking alone in the Paris Triangle d’Or,which includes the prestigious (shopping) streets avenue des Champs-Elysees and avenue Montaigne.”

The devil may not wear Prada, but the attitudes the brand activates appear to be anything but angelic.

Each pedestrian witnessed a college-age woman, wearing a large leg brace and walking with the aid of a crutch, “accidentally” drop her bottle of water and packet of candies. The researchers noted whether the targeted passerby offered assistance.

Among those who had just exited a luxury store such as Dior, Chanel, or Versace, only 35 percent extended or offered help. In contrast, 77.5 percent of other pedestrians did so. Apparently fashion doesn’t mix with compassion.

The second experiment featured 112 pedestrians who were approached either on Paris’ place Vendome (home of exclusive jewelry and watch stores), or on a nearby side street featuring apartment buildings.

Each was stopped by a young woman who was pushing another in a wheelchair. The young woman explained in a worried voice that she had lost her cell phone, and asked if the person could “please stay close to my friend a few minutes” while she looked for it at a nearby restaurant they had just patronized.

“Among participants asked for help near a luxury store, 23.2 percent gave help,” the researchers write, “whereas 82.1 percent gave help in the control, ‘ordinary street’ condition.”

A final, similarly structured experiment found this effect only occurred on streets containing luxury stores, as opposed to those lined with ordinary shops.

“The place Vendome concentrates mainly on watch and jewelry brands, whereas the avenue Montaigne is dedicated to fashion,” Lamy and his colleagues note. “Taken together, these results suggest that whatever the brand type, reminders of luxury would inhibit helpfulness more readily than reminders of non-luxury shopping.”

But why? “Materialistic reminders may have increased self-enhancement and competitive values,” the researchers speculate, “which in turn would decrease trusting and benevolent behavior, and a sense of being concerned about, and connected to, other people.”

These first-of-their-kind findings are consistent with several earlier studies by Nicolas Gueguen (a co-author of this new paper), including one that found people who had just handled money at an ATM machine were less likely to engage in helpful behavior.

So if you find yourself needing to rely on the kindness of strangers, stay away from both banks and luxury-brand shops. The devil may not wear Prada, but the attitudes the brand activates appear to be anything but angelic.