Ironic Psychology and Its Influence on our Spending

Consumer Behavior

By Matt Johnson, PhD 

Irony has a special place in the human psyche. Otherwise mundane concepts suddenly come to life when they’re recognized to have an ironic quality. British comedian David Mitchell captures this perfectly when describing the media’s obsession with the “ironic stress” of vacations:

That whole Heathrow stress thing is overplayed because the media can’t get over the irony of it all. They just love interviewing people at the airport and going,

“So you’re going on holiday and you’re expecting to have a nice time?”

“Yes we are, we’re planning to have a nice time on holiday.”

“Well, what’s happened?”

“Well, actually the opposite of a nice time is being had by us. We’re having a nasty time queueing and I’m not sure where my bag is.”

“Oh my gosh, so what you’re expecting was to have a nice time… but what has actually happened is the opposite — you’re having a bad nasty time. Can you imagine how bad that is, that’s horrible, that’s the worst — that’s worse than Hitler!”

The hyperbole is beyond palpable, but the bit distills a key truth: Irony has an uncanny allure. And as we’ll see, irony not only captures our attention, but it also drives our consumer behavior.

One of the challenges to understanding irony is finding an adequate definition. Irony is often misused, being confused with its closest sibling: coincidence. Alanis Morissette famously wrote a song about irony, but with lyrics, which described a series of inconvenient coincidences (e.g. “a thousand spoons when all I need is a knife”).

(And to be fair to Alanis, some have argued that the song actually achieved the ultimate irony — a song called “ironic,” which actually isn’t about irony. We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.)

However, the strict definition is consistent with Mitchell’s usage above: expecting one thing (e.g. having a relaxing time), but in striving for it, receiving the opposite outcomes (e.g. having a stressful time).

So what is it about irony that makes it so captivating?

The Psychology and Influence of Irony

Like its definition, the power of irony is difficult to nail down. But we may get a clue from the fact that everyday irony bears a strong resemblance to the dramatic irony used in storytelling. Here, the audience knows something that one of the characters doesn’t, which ratchets up the tension. Recall the Spiderman movies and the scenes of Peter Parker being pressed by his newspaper boss to find out Spiderman’s real identity. The audience of course knows it’s Peter Parker all along. Or in Toy Story, where Buzz Lightyear thinks he is a real-life space ranger but all the other toys, as well as the audience, knows he’s just a toy.

This may be where irony gets its power; perhaps through a strange quirk of our social cognition that we find this layered mentalization process is alluring.

Whatever the mechanism is, irony’s impact is palpable. Just like the British media, we naturally find ironic storylines interesting. For example, criticisms of social media often exploit the inherent irony of the situation, pointing out that these platforms were designed to connect us, but are actually tearing us apart. Irony may also be why indecent scandals are extra captivating when the perpetrators are pious religious figures.

Ironic storylines can also shape historical events. In his book, Narrative Economics, Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller describes how a single, incredibly ironic phrase, defined the legacy of financial scholar Irving Fisher. Just a few weeks before the stock market crash of 1929, Fisher described the market as being at a “permanently high plateau.”

Fisher never lived it down. And in fact, the phrase itself may have exacerbated the actual economic crisis itself. As Schiller describes:

“The newspapers picked up that new, colorful phrase over the next couple of days. That spectacularly ill-timed and ironic phrase became an epidemic, probably affecting the duration of the market debacle, and it is still widely remembered today. In fact, those three words are more famous today than the title of any of the books that Fisher spent years writing.”

If irony can cement historical legacies and make waves in global financial markets, what more can it do for individual-level consumer behavior?

The Psychology of Ironic Consumption and How It Influences Social Signaling

Since the appeal of irony is grounded in social cognition, it’s unsurprising that its influence in the consumer world is also social in nature. As we’ve seen, there’s a deep irony in the fashion choices and consumer habits of hipsters: a group of people attempting to look different but in the end, all looking the same.

But it goes deeper than that, and into the realm of symbolic consumption: Products and brands often serve as symbols to subtly communicate to the social world. For example, driving a Lexus signals that we’re high status, whereas driving a Prius or wearing Patagonia signals that we’re environmentally conscious.

And while there’s a general meaning associated with certain products and brands, the interpretation also depends on the social context. Enter the phenomenon of ironic consumption.

Oftentimes, consumers will use a product ironically, intending to communicate the opposite of the product’s traditional meaning. For example, wearing a hat that reads “vegan” when all our friends know we love to eat meat. Or wearing a Justin Bieber shirt to a death metal concert. Given the context, it’s the ironic meaning that comes through.

And interestingly, this type of signaling allows for a sophisticated level of communication. In a series of experiments, researchers Caleb Warren and Gina Mohr found that consumers naturally use products ironically to signal one thing to an “in-group” while signaling something different to an “out-group.”

For example, if you wear a “vegan” hat to a steakhouse, your fellow meat-eaters (e.g. an “in-group” member) will understand and appreciate the irony. In fact, the results indicate that you’ll be perceived favorably for this. However, if a vegan (e.g. an “out-group” member) happened to see you in this context, they would likely not understand the irony and would think negatively about you.

Stephen Colbert captured this masterfully on The Colbert Report, where he depicted an ultra-conservative talk show host. Research found that, through irony, he communicated very different things to different political audiences. While both liberal and conservative viewers found Colbert was funny, only the politically liberal audience members recognized the irony.

Ironic consumption, as well as unique ironic political portrayals, provide the unique ability to communicate different messages to different audiences.

The Application of Irony on Social Media

Irony can also be harnessed by brands themselves, as an effective way to drive attention, differentiate, and engage consumers. We saw this firsthand in the Spring of 2020.

Check out the following tweet:

“Friendly reminder in times of uncertainty and misinformation: anecdotes are not data. (good) data is carefully measured and collected information based on a range of subject-dependent factors, including, but not limited to, controlled variables, meta-analysis, and randomization.”

Without knowing the context, where would you think this came from? A public health account? A well-respected newspaper? A journalist?

Nope. This came from none other than the official brand account of Steak-Umm, a frozen sliced beef company.

The irony of a frozen meat company becoming a beacon for digital epistemology was not lost on Steak-Umm. In fact, they fully acknowledged the role of irony played in driving this engagement:

“People think it’s bizarre, ironic, and funny when a frozen meat company points out the importance of critical thinking, but chances are the same message would never “go viral” if it was from a person. Our society values entertainment over truth and that’s a huge problem.”

Such is the power of irony. Steak-Umm Bless.

Final Thoughts on the Psychology of Irony

Whether for dramatic storytelling, social media engagement, or neuromarketing, irony proves to be a potent force.

All the while, the word continues to the subject of derision and debate. Like Alanis Morissette before him, Donald Trump was ridiculed in 2018 for using the term incorrectly in a complaint on Twitter:

“Isn’t it Ironic? Getting ready to go to the G-7 in Canada to fight for our country on Trade (we have the worst trade deals ever made), then off to Singapore to meet with North Korea & the Nuclear Problem…But back home we still have the 13 Angry Democrats pushing the Witch Hunt!”

All told, irony remains an elusive term, and we may never fully understand the secret of its potency. In the end, that mystery may be a blessing. If nothing else, it gives us something to ponder the next time we find ourselves stressed out while attempting to have a relaxing vacation.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today on 16 February 2021. It can be accessed here:

About the Author

Matt Johnson, PhD is a speaker, writer, and professor at Hult International Business School in Boston. He is the founder of the neuromarketing firm Pop Neuro, and the author of two books: Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes our Brains, and Branding that Means Business (Economist Books, Fall 2022). 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.