The clothes we wear, the type of haircut we prefer and the way we decorate our home are all statements we make about ourselves every day. But what about the car we drive? Does this very personal decision reflect back on us as well?
We asked psychologist Benjamin Baldwin for insights into the psychology of human presentation.
“Humans are presentational animals and literally the only person who is not making a decision about the kind of car they drive is the teenager who inherits a family car as their first car,” Baldwin said. “Anyone who is purchasing a car is making a series of decisions about what they want their car to project, whether they’re buying a mini-van or SUV to shuttle their kids around or a second car or third car just reserved for weekend pleasure driving.”
Baldwin also observes that the type of a car we buy at various stages at our lives is also a deep reflection of the image we want to project.
A 20-year-old buying an MX-5 Miata is making a very different statement than a 40- or 60-year-old. None are negative, but they are all specific to the stage of life we’re in. All are essentially saying they value performance and challenging conventional norms, but “the 20-year-old is making a bold statement about the way they view their future,” while Baldwin feels the 40-year-old who has a family is saying “although I’ve got kids and responsibilities, I haven’t given up on my personal goals for squeezing the most out of life.”
The 60-year-old is in some ways the most interesting because, in Baldwin’s eyes, “60 is the new 45, but without the day-to-day struggles of child rearing, so the statement is more that it’s time to take the top down on your life and really enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
Baldwin has also observed that philosophies about conspicuous consumption affect car choice.
“Some individuals who have a more secure self-image make a conscious decision to choose a car that make a definite statement: That intelligence trumps a ‘herd’ mentality,” Baldwin said.
A status symbol is not as important to them as knowing they’ve done their research and gotten the same or even better level of performance and luxury, without tossing away thousands extra just to be in “a club.”
In his private practice, Baldwin sees many individuals with a less secure self-image being “brand obsessed.” He explained that slavish name association is indicative of a decision-making process driven more by fear of societal judgment than the excitement of making an informed choice in the face of societal pressure and convention.
Whatever the motivation, car choice is as personal as our fingerprints, and no two people make the same decision in the same way.