What does your time-use say about you? The symbolic value of consumer choices

By Katrine Berg Nødtvedt

7 June 2019 12:07

(updated: 30 April 2020 09:52)

What does your time-use say about you? The symbolic value of consumer choices

Traditionally, consumer research has focused on the symbolic value of products. New research now turns attention to the symbolic value of time.

I recently returned from a 4-month research stay at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and during my stay, I got to participate in a weekly PhD seminar consisting of discussing the newest consumer behavior research, and generating research ideas.

A topic that frequently came up, both in the articles we read and in our discussions, was the symbolic value of consumption choices.

Although consumer researchers have long been aware of the importance of symbolic consumer value (e.g. Solomon, 1983), there are several new insights to be found in the most recent research on this topic.

Firstly, whereas prior research on symbolic consumption mainly focused on material products (e.g. clothes and cars), there is now an increasing focus on the symbolic aspects of consumers’ time-use, including consumption of services.

For instance, a recent paper by Keinan et al. (2019) reviews new research on the symbolic value of time. One of the main findings they point to is that whereas in the past, status has been signaled through spending time on leisure activities (e.g. vacations, entertainment), it seems that now, being busy with work is the new status symbol.

Evidence from experimental research shows that people perceive others to be higher status when they are presented as busy rather than not busy, and that these perceptions arise because people think someone who is busy must have a high level of human capital, and be in high demand.

Keinan et al. (2019) further tie people’s concern with work and productivity to trends in how consumers choose to spend their leisure time. Research shows that the more concerned consumers are with being productive, and getting the most out of their time, the more they will prefer leisure experiences that give them a good story to tell afterwards. Importantly, consumers seem to prefer these kinds of “collectible experiences” instead of experiences that they think would be more pleasurable and enjoyable. People are trying to be productive, even on their spare time.

One might perhaps think that the increased concern with working and being productive (even during leisure) would lead to a forceful surge in the use of time-saving services, such as housecleaning or grocery-delivery services. However, research has shown that many consumers do not use time-saving services even when they could afford them, and that this might partly be because they experience guilt for outsourcing tasks they themselves dislike (Whillans & Dunn, working paper).

From this perspective, if time-saving services are associated with high-status individuals, some consumers might avoid using these services because they do not feel sufficiently entitled or deserving.

One way research has shown that service providers can get around this issue is by emphasizing the benefits that the service purchase would have for the service provider.

For instance, a grocery-delivery firm might include information about what their employees appreciate about their work in their advertisement content. This intervention has been shown to reduce consumers’ guilt, and increase their interest in using time-saving services.

All in all, these new findings from consumer psychology speak to the importance of considering the symbolic costs and benefits consumers might experience when spending their time on work, leisure or use of a service. Consumers’ focus on getting the most out of their time is not just a result of caring about functional value, but also what stories their choices tell about them.


Keinan, A., Bellezza, S., & Paharia, N. (2019). The symbolic value of time. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 58-61.

Solomon, M. R. (1983). The role of products as social stimuli: A symbolic interactionism perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10, 319-329.

Whillans, A. V., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Identifiable service provider effect: When guilt undermines consumer willingness to buy time. Harvard Business School Working Paper 18-057.

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