The decision to own a car: rational or emotional?

Buying a car is often the steepest investment people make outside of buying a home. A Booz Allen study of automobile buyers states that there are only two critical factors influencing car-buying decisions in the US: “product excellence” and “cost of ownership.”

But this study is deeply unrevealing in the sense that so many of us start developing our perception of cars from a young age, and by the time we’re in a position to buy one, both emotional and rational reasoning are going to come into play, no matter how you slice it. What’s harder to say is which is more of an influence.

We try to appear rational

Is it possible that when asked why we buy things, particularly cars, we provide rational reasoning because we think it’s better to seem, well, rational? What if consumer decisions only seem rational because of the way many companies measure car-buying decisions? These are the deep philosophical questions we all must ponder.

Although this large-scale study collected a ton of data showing that functionality is incredibly important to people, and that we often make sound decisions based on said indicators of functionality, something doesn’t quite add up. Do people who buy SUVs necessarily go off-roading, making that thrilling mention of the 4-wheel drive so practical, or are they buying an image, a feeling, a possibility? Do men buy $150,000 sports cars to race, or mock speed limits? Or are they simply trying to get the girl, live the fantasy?

Emotional necessitates rational

Like anything, there is no one answer. While a person might very well have many rational reasons for buying a particular car, the emotional ones play an undeniable role in that final choice.

How does it look, how does it handle? What does it say about you? Is it your style? Do you feel safe driving it? Is it sexy? Can it still be spun as a responsible purchase?

We are emotional creatures, try as we might to deny this fact, and most of us make emotional decisions, which are also easily influenced by the emotions and opinions of those around us. Rational justifications are often the icing on the cake—the convenient disguise for our emotion-driven choices. Many of us need both at play to buy; it’s an interchange! Luckily, where there’s an emotional impulse, there is usually a rational justification to it back up. And guess what? That’s totally okay. Rationalizing is human. And so is having feelings.

Not all car purchases are created equal

When asked about segments of car-buying, consumer advocate Tom Martino shared the following age demographic discoveries: individual car-buyers tend to make more emotional decisions, especially those aged 16 to 26 or in their 60s. Middle-aged car-buyers with families make choices more based on rational, practical needs. And of course corporate car-buyers or those on the market for any vehicle with a practical business use (i.e. pickup trucks for landscaping) are very often more practical purchases as well.

These findings make total sense. We can’t pretend that all car purchases are created equal. Nor are all budgets, all needs, all styles, or all fantasies.