Wearing imitation designer clothing or accessories can fool others — but no matter how convincing the knockoff, you never, of course, fool yourself. It’s a small but undeniable act of duplicity. Which led a trio of researchers to suspect that wearing counterfeits might quietly take a psychological toll on the wearer.
To test their hunch, the psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked two groups of young women to wear sunglasses taken from a box labeled either “authentic” or “counterfeit.” (In truth, all the eyewear was authentic, donated by a brand-name designer interested in curtailing counterfeiting.) Then the researchers put the participants in situations in which it was both easy and tempting to cheat.
In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems — under heavy time pressure.
Afterward, given ample time to check their work, they reported how many problems they were able to answer correctly. They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers knew each person’s actual score. Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so.
Why did this happen? As Gino puts it, “When one feels like a fake, he or she is likely to behave like a fake.” It was notable that the participants were oblivious to this and other similar effects the researchers discovered: the psychological costs of cheap knockoffs are hidden. The study is currently in press at the journal Psychological Science.
I imagine that owners of luxury brands are quite interested in this sort of thing — this earlier NYT report suggests as much — but it would probably be wise to hold off any big conclusions or implications for laws and policies designed to protect brands. Where do people get the premise that “counterfeiting” is “cheating”? Brand owners may have put that rabbit in the hat, so to speak; the authors of the study told participants that the products they were wearing were either “authentic” or “counterfeit” (triggering prior but unknown associations between what is fake in the product world, and what is honest) and then measured the truth-telling of each group. But is there a control group missing? What about people who were given branded products (in this case, sunglasses) and not told whether or not it was “authentic” or “counterfeit”?