3 Questions for…Anne Bowers

In February, Anne Bowers, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, published a study that found, all things being equal, consumers will pay less for an engagement ring that was involved in a divorce. Bowers (pictured) discusses her findings with JCK

Why did consumers want to pay less for a “divorced” ring?

Anne Bowers: Some thought it was socially inappropriate, or they wouldn’t want a ring like this, or that this ring is tainted, and you don’t buy tainted rings. If you go to wedding chat boards, that is one [question] that comes up quite frequently: Is it appropriate to accept someone’s used rings? The general consensus was that a ring from a divorce was not. Someone said, “I’d rather have tinfoil than a tainted ring.” People are very clear that this is something wrong.

Is it mostly superstition?

Bowers: People were just really uncomfortable with the idea. Whereas I might be excited if I got stereo equipment because of a divorce.

It’s called sympathetic magic. We assume being near a disgusting thing will transfer to us. It’s not unlike the lucky charm or rabbit’s foot. If there were a sweater that was worn by a murderer, we wouldn’t want to wear it.… People also don’t want to live in a house where people have been killed even though you can’t catch anything from the house. It can be positive, too. If a famous person touched something, you are not going to become famous.

It also could just be social norms about what’s an appropriate gift, sort of like you don’t hand someone money if you are coming over for dinner, but you might bring wine. We have distinct norms about getting engaged. The tainted ring is a clear violation of those norms. 

What do you think this means from a business standpoint?

Bowers: It is very clear that this emotional component is an important part of the value of the ring, accounting for some of the cost. So one way to think about it is: If people discount a ring from a failed relationship, can you turn that around? Will people pay a premium for a ring from the right circumstance? 

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