Women in UNIFORME: Anni S.

Anni is a PhD candidate at NYU, and her passion for and knowledge of psychology seeps into her everyday life. We come away from thoughtful conversations with her with new ways to examine our own choices and thought processes.

Anni wears the Jenna Shirt in White 

My friends back in Munich once said they didn't dare to buy me clothes for my birthday because I had such a distinctive style. That really surprised me!  But only two days ago in New York, a new friend of mine said exactly the same to me. So I guess I do have a style and it is somehow distinctive. Maybe my style is a little antithetical and that makes it so hard for my friends to predict what I will like — hip, but elegant, I would say.  I like to have some creative elements but still appear as an overall Mademoiselle.  I think that my style is not an overly thought-out, aware decision; it emerges naturally from what I have on my mind, inspirations I grab from the streets, and the mood I am in.  I don't like artificial dressing and desperate attempts to be fashionable or create an image or style of oneself. I like clean cuts and being unconventional.

I was a teenager with lots of energy, curiosity, and lust for life. I tried many different things and loved being creative, loved to dance. Correspondingly, my style was very funky, eccentric, and colorful.  I crafted my own jewelry or asked my mom’s friend to sew bikinis or dresses I had in mind. It wasn't so much about standing out but about the creative process behind my style.  After that came a phase of trying to go with the latest fashion — terribly exhausting and uncreative.  As I got older and attended university, I became more reflective — and honestly didn't have the time and motivation to follow fashion so much — and my style became more simple.

My style is very different to my mom’s but I’ve always admired her consistency and her sense for elegance — she is one of the few remaining “ladies.”  My grandma, on the other hand, was very jovial. She worked in a clothing boutique and passed onto me her idea of approaching style not as a superficial concept but as an art process, a creative approach, and a creative channel towards fashion.

I moved to New York from Munich in 2015.  Inevitably, I was forced to really think about what I needed in my wardrobe and what I could give away. I’ve accumulated so many clothes that I thought I could never cut them down to two suitcases.  However, once I realized which biases I had it became pretty easy: I don't need these jeans to be reminded of my fantastic Sweden trip and if batik shirts ever come back in fashion, I probably won’t enjoy wearing my old one from high school.  In the end it was quite a detoxing process.  By accumulating all these clothes, we are trying to keep our options open — “it’s gonna be in fashion again one day!” or. “if I get invited to a black tie party I could wear that…”

The paradoxical thing is that consumer psychology shows that fewer options make people ultimately more happy.  So I am trying to stick with this. In the end, fewer options also stimulate you to be more creative anyway, and as I said the creative process is the main driver behind my predilection for fashion.

I still aspire to pare down my wardrobe to even less.  It is fine to have some items for special occasions or some quirky pieces which I don't wear on a daily basis, but they should be the exception, not the norm. I am also trying to achieve a “fair and sustainable” closet.  Meaning, a repertoire of clothes that I didn’t acquire at the cost of exploited workers or the environment; high-quality pieces that I carefully chose.  Most importantly, I am working on changing my mindset towards a fair und sustainable one; choosing quality over quantity, resisting impulsive fast fashion purchases and being consistent with my taste over time.

Psych note: I am appealing to the concept of construal level as well as impulsive purchasing and delay of gratification. It is hard to connect emotionally with such abstract concepts of child labor or even imagining these people as human beings with same struggles and emotions as yourself when you are a) far away (psychological distance to the subject) b) have the rush and adrenalin from a new pair of high heels right there that really change the chemistry in your body and ultimately your way of thinking.

Mindful shopping is very time-consuming.  For this reason I shop very infrequently, maybe twice a month. Sometimes I need some to be creative and I do see fashion as an outlet for that.  Then I go window shopping and if I like a piece I get it.  Mostly, however, I shop for special occasions or when I realize that there is something essential missing in my closet:  For example a really warm jacket for New York winters!

When I feel like being a little creative I usually go out and explore and see what inspirations I get.  I have a mental account for “fun items” (e.g. a robe that I converted to a necklace or a more extravagant shirt). The balance on this account is pretty low but available on call so that I don't need to plan for purchases in this category.

With my aspirations of a more narrow and sustainable wardrobe I plan bigger purchases based on what I already have and most importantly what I really need in the future.  When I buy bigger items such as shoes or jackets I try to be smart about the color for example. The red loafers might look a little nicer but in the end the black version will fit to more of my current (and potential/future) outfits so I go with the black ones. 

Also, social fairness matters a lot to me.  I am constantly educating myself about the production conditions of brands and ultimately try to avoid those that don’t meet my values and standards.  I have to be honest — its tough and I do have several items from H&M and Zara but I am getting better at it. I’m trying to avoid such stores in the first place and when I am really tempted by their fast and accessible/inexpensive/affordable fashion I try to think about my decision on a more abstract level;  drawing the bigger picture to which my purchase ultimately would contribute to.

Psych note: Delaying gratification and going for the higher quality product requires self control.  Research indicates that self-control is a limited resource and works like a muscle; every activity that requires us to inhibit our impulses (not eating the cookie, studying for an exam instead of going out, buying a higher quality item later instead of a lower quality item now..) all use up our self-control resources and tire out our self-control muscle

Research shows mixed results on whether it really works like that in practice, but the theory is well established. So why wasting our resources on delaying the gratification of a purchase?  Another problem is that people don't like decisions, especially when it comes to decisions that have more gravity. Such decisions require cognitive effort and individuals really try to avoid cognitive effort. So why add gravity to a decision by going with a high-quality item and less quantity?  Going by quality instead of quantity is therefore uncomfortable and the harder option.

A lady in a fair trade store once told me that she could only guarantee that the main part of a piece was fair trade -  “you will inevitably find some parts of it not fulfilling the fair standard, a zipper or the thread or whatsoever…”)

Lastly, quality and details matter for me as well. I feel these features are the main contributors of sustainability but also to an overall impression of classiness (they just make the difference you can’t put into words when you have the impression that this piece seems more elegant).

I’ve read a little about consumer decision-making and the psychology of happiness and incorporated some findings in my everyday life: When it comes to purchases, I often buy in cash to be aware of the amount I spend. When it comes to judging the quality and sustainability of a brand, I try not to let easily accessible indicators (such as high price or popularity) bias my judgment.  I also cut off the price tags right away, as research shows that the option of returning items makes you appreciate them less. 

I mostly buy one item at a time to maximize the happiness I get out of purchases. There is research showing that happiness relies on the frequency, not the intensity, of the positive input you receive. Besides, I like to save up for purchases as I feel it is a fun activity in itself: looking forward to buying something makes me almost as happy as actually buying it. In the end it makes me appreciate the items more.  Lastly, I avoid stores or online shops with many options and features to compare items; options are stressful and discount the overall quality/appreciation of products (key word: choice overload).


Anni Sternisko is a first year PhD student in the NYU SPAM lab. She grew up in Germany and received her BA in Psychology with a minor in Economics from the Ludwigs-Maximilians-University (LMU). Before pursuing her PhD, Anni worked as a research assistant at Columbia University and NYU. 

Anni is interested in how individuals' representations of the world shape judgment and decision-making. Specifically, she asks how basic motivations, such as social goals or the drive to predict and control one's environment, influence how individuals literally see, judge, and act. Further, she asks how such motivated biases apply in real-life domains such as legal punishment. She currently works on the question how skin tone representation influences voting behavior.


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