Why should it matter whether you buy real designer sunglasses or fake ones? The designer may be upset because he or she is being ripped off. But then you console yourself. They’re only sunglasses. It’s all fun. Who cares? It’s not as though Stella McCartney’s heading to the poor house any time soon.
It’s the same with bags. Do you shell out hundreds of pounds for the real thing or spend a fraction of that on a decent-looking fake, which may fall to pieces in the rain but does the job? But what is the job? Is it to do what sunglasses and bags are supposed to do, shield your eyes and hold your things? Or are fake designer items actually meant to signal to others that you are better than in fact you are?
Academic researchers have concluded that people buy fake products in order to tell themselves and others that they are better than they are. Buying a fake is a shortcut to fooling yourself and others that you are rich and have good taste. Even people who claim to be buying fakes for a laugh are in fact hoping that they will appear more affluent.
But a new set of experiments has found that buying fakes has a darker side. It not only causes people to think they are something they are not, but actually makes them behave unethically. Wearing a pair of shades you know are knock-offs creates a “counterfeit self” who lies more and is more mistrustful of others. What starts with fake sunglasses and bags may end up with you lying about your past and present and assuming everyone else does the same.
Three American researchers, Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, ran a series of tests on a group of 85 female university students to examine the behavioural effects of wearing fake products.
In the first tests, they were all given a pair of real Chloe sunglasses but half of them were told their glasses were knock-offs. They were then all given a series of tasks to test their honesty. In one test, they were given a set of mathematical problems to complete in five minutes and asked to record their own score on a separate piece of paper. They would receive 50 cents for each correct answer.
However, there was no obvious identifier on each work sheet, so a dishonest person could claim a higher score and take more money, assuming that their true score would never be found out. But the researchers were actually monitoring each student, so they could tell who cheated and who didn’t. It turned out that 71 per cent of those who thought they were wearing knock-off sunglasses inflated their performance, compared to just 30 per cent of those who thought they were wearing the real thing.
Those who thought they were wearing counterfeit sunglasses considered people they knew to be more dishonest, were more distrustful of common excuses and thought the characters in the scenario much more likely to behave dishonestly.
A final experiment tested the subjects’ feelings of authenticity, measured by feelings of alienation from themselves. They were asked to what extent, on a scale of one to seven, they agreed with the statements: “Right now, I don’t know how I really feel inside”; “Right now, I feel as though I don’t know myself very well”; “Right now, I feel out of touch with the real me’; and “Right now, I feel alienated from myself.”
Higher scores indicated higher levels of self-alienation. The students who thought they were wearing fakes were on average one point on the scale more self-alienated than those who thought they had the real thing.
The researchers’ depressing conclusion was that wearing fakes is not just bad for the wearer, but also for broader society as it leads to higher levels of mistrust. Whatever you think you are saving by buying a knock-off at a fraction of the cost of the real item, you pay for with your morality. It’s great news for the fashion companies, which are constantly battling the knock-offs, and bad news for anyone who thought those fakes were fooling anyone.
by Philip Delves Broughton