Saint Mary's Business Professor Warns Consumers of "Santa Syndrome"

New Study By Saint Mary's College of California Business Professor Suggests
Consumers Check Optimism At Door Before Purchasing Goods
"Be Wary of 'Santa Syndrome' While Shopping"

Consumers better watch out; channeling an inner Santa Claus could result in a lighter wallet and a few duds under the tree this holiday season, according to a new study co-authored by Saint Mary's College of California Business Professor Andrew Wilson.

Wilson's research found that shoppers who believe in a "just world" subconsciously rely on an underlying belief that people generally get what they deserve. “In a just world, the myth is that good little boys and girls get the nice presents they deserve, and the naughty ones get lumps of coal. Consumers with an overall sense of a living in a 'just' or 'fair' world use those beliefs to cope with retail decision-making, including the possibility they may have chosen the wrong gift,” says Wilson.

“If you believe in a just world, you’re more likely to seek a salesperson’s help not for their expertise, but as a means to assuage or tamp down your uncertainty about a purchase, rather than taking responsibility for the decision by comparing variables like features, quality and price,” says Wilson.

 The study "The Optimistic Trust Effect: Use of Belief in a Just World to Cope with Decision Generated Threat," is due out next month in the Journal of Consumer Research and is co-authored by Peter Darke, an associate professor in York’s Schulich School of Business and Wilson, who teaches in the Graduate Business Program of Saint Mary's School of Economics and Business Administration.

The two scholars report that “Santa shoppers” cope with buyer’s remorse by increasing their trust in salespeople, rather than heading back to the store. “Our results show when doubting a purchase after the fact, this type of consumer will respond with heightened trust,” Wilson says. Such shoppers may also be more likely to purchase extended warranties or optional accessories, he notes.

The researchers studied the reactions of more than 500 participants confronted with various scenarios surrounding the purchase of a digital camera. In one experiment, participants were asked to choose between two cameras recommended by a salesperson; one group was asked to rate their trust in the salesperson before making their choice, the other post-purchase.

After making a choice, individuals who believed in a just world trusted the salesperson more than those who did not hold this belief, Darke notes. “Before making the choice, both groups of participants trusted the salesperson equally. This is evidence that individuals use their belief in a just world as a resource to cope with the possibility of having made a poor decision,” he said.

Darke adds that optimism doesn’t always equal naiveté. “These consumers are not gullible dupes who always trust marketers; they seem to use such coping mechanisms only up to a point.” He says another experiment demonstrated that optimistic consumers respond with distrust when they are being obviously misled.

Are there ways to counter the Santa syndrome?  Wilson isn’t sure, warning that "such optimism is not rational. Consumers may not realize they are doing it."  But he says, bringing a wing-man to the mall couldn't hurt. "When you’re shopping, you could bring along a more pessimistic friend. Of course this might just result in a lengthier shopping trip,” he says.

For more information about the “The Optimistic Trust Effect" report contact Assistant Professor Andrew Wilson at 925-631-8709 or by email at


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