Buyer Beware

Some psychologists see danger in excessive materialism

California psychologist Allen Kanner often asks the children he treats for emotional and behavioral problems to talk about what they want to be when they grow up. Until about 10 years ago, kids told Kanner they wanted jobs such as astronaut, physician, baseball player, and ballerina. Then, their aspirations took a sharp turn for the purse. Gap-toothed grade-schoolers and gangly middle-schoolers started telling Kanner that they just wanted to be rich.

GIMME MORE. Some research suggests that personal happiness plummets among people obsessed with being rich and buying lots of expensive stuff.

A striking behavioral development accompanied the rise of this show-me-the-money attitude, Kanner says. Children brought in for treatment frequently turned up their noses at conventional toys that the psychologist kept on hand, and demanded electronic games or other “better, newer” toys. Otherwise, the children saw no reason to play. And playing forms the core of psychotherapy with children.

From Kanner’s perspective, these kids represent the tip of a materialistic iceberg that’s increasingly freezing the joy out of many people’s lives in Western societies. Modern citizens are consumed by life, liberty, and the pursuit of more and better stuff, prodded on by the relentless flow of advertisements (see “Pricey Pursuits Take Charge,” below) designed to create a flood of retail desires. The single-minded quest for profit in large corporations demands more and more hours of work from employees by fostering the belief that if you’re rich, you’re happy, Kanner says.

Meanwhile, one line of psychological research that he and others are pursuing suggests that feelings of satisfaction and happiness decline among people driven by a need for financial success and fancy possessions.

The data reflect a two-pronged problem, Kanner argues. In some cases, people who buy into the values of consumer culture end up starved for close friends, family, or any deeper meaning in their lives. For others, he says, money and possessions are hollow compensations for doubts about self-worth, worries about life’s uncertainties, and, especially, fears of death.

“When money becomes the focus of what you think is important, your motivation and well-being suffer,” concurs psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “Increases . . . in one’s own salary don’t equate with increases in happiness.”

Kanner and Kasser have edited a book on this theme titled Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic Society (2003, American Psychological Association).

Not everyone is ready to take these psychologists’ message to the bank. For example, some researchers contend that the amount of money people seek is usually irrelevant to their personal happiness, unless they’re trying to substitute material goods for self-esteem. And some investigators argue that the promise of more money can boost creativity and motivation to achieve goals, both of which play into the happiness equation.

Material woes

It comes as no surprise that poor people often regard wealth, possessions, and status as keys to happiness. Political scientists have found that residents of poor countries hold stronger materialistic values than those in rich countries do. They’ve also found that generations raised in bad economic times are more money oriented than those raised in prosperous times, and that national recessions usually herald spikes in people’s materialistic concerns.

But among people with decent roofs over their heads and meals assured, the hunger for wealth reflects a different, graver kind of concern, Kasser proposes. Think of it as beating back death with a designer cane.

In an investigation directed by Kasser, college students were assigned to write an essay either about their own death or about music. In a survey taken after the essay was completed, students who wrote about death reported higher expectations for their future salaries and spending than did their peers who were told to write about music. After writing about death, students also turned greedier when playing an experimental game in which they had to divvy up resources with partners.

Kasser’s work builds on studies directed by psychologist Jeff Greenberg at the University of Arizona in Tucson, in which people who are asked to think about themselves dying then report temporarily stronger religious and political beliefs. Death-pondering volunteers also show signs of trying to bolster their self-image: They cite newfound desires to improve their romantic relationships and contribute to charities, for example.

Another study found that people who think about death exhibit markedly increased preferences for pictures of well-manicured gardens and other scenes of cultivated nature versus wilderness scenes.

Greenberg and his colleagues view such findings as consistent with the notion, advanced 30 years ago by anthropologist Ernest Becker, that those who chase after wealth in modern societies are trying to deflect their fear of death. In the garden-scenes study, they argue, images of tamed nature soothe mortality concerns and create an illusion that the natural course of life and death can be conquered.

Greenberg asserts there’s another reason materialism has broad appeal as a balm for death fears: It serves as a secular religion in a time marked by widespread loss of faith in traditional forms of worship.

Much more research is needed to explore that provocative possibility, says psychologist Edward Diener of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Still, there’s good reason to suspect that materialism can be “toxic to subjective well-being,” Diener says.

In a new study, he and his coworkers found that people who identified themselves closely with expensive possessions, such as diamonds, reported more negative and fewer positive moods when contacted at various times over a 7-day period than did volunteers who identified themselves with inexpensive objects, such as flowers.

Additional evidence gathered by Diener’s group points to three reasons that materialistic people may report more than their share of dissatisfaction and foul moods. First, they often maintain distant and unfulfilling relationships, according to interviews with their families and friends. Second, materialistic people generally report less enjoyment from activities undertaken to further their own financial goals than from activities having other goals, such as volunteering in the community or trying to become more popular.

Finally, materialistic people describe an especially large gap between what they have and what they want financially, compared with the differences they perceive between their wants and haves in other arenas, such as their home and work lives.

To be sure, no one is advocating poverty as the pathway to happiness. Overall, people living in rich countries describe themselves as being happier and more satisfied with their lives than those living in poor nations do, Diener notes.

The challenge for wealthy nations, in Diener’s view, is to nurture economic development, which should raise the citizenry’s standard of living, without encouraging the worship of money and possessions. Rampant consumerism doesn’t just pose a risk to individual happiness, Diener adds. It threatens a person’s work ethic and ability to be creative.

Kanner and Kasser would like to see a radical shift in public attitudes toward materialism. In their book, they call for a “voluntary simplicity” movement based on the principle that people need to slow down, reduce wasteful consumption, and emphasize family and relationships.

Buck up

Not everyone buys the argument that people pay an emotional price for celebrating materialistic values. According to an article on the pursuit of wealth and psychological well-being that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2001, the problem is not the money, but the motivation.

The authors of that article, Abhishek Srivastava of the University of Maryland in College Park and his colleagues, had developed a survey that asked questions identifying different motives for making money. They administered the survey to 266 business students and 145 successful entrepreneurs.

In both groups, those who indicated they wanted a lot of money to overcome self-doubt, obtain better possessions than others, and seek power also reported relatively little happiness and satisfaction with their lives. In contrast, individuals who sought big bucks to enhance family security, to enjoy greater freedom in and out of work, to make a mark on society by giving to charities, or to achieve a sense of personal pride, reported being generally happy and satisfied with their situations.

Although attempts to bolster one’s self-esteem by seeking money ultimately fail, “money itself is not harmful,” says study coauthor and psychologist Edwin A. Locke, now retired from the University of Maryland.

What’s more, other evidence indicates that the judicious use of money and other external rewards actually boosts people’s feelings of competence, interest in what they’re doing, and creativity, according to investigations directed by Robert Eisenberger of the University of Delaware in Newark.

For instance, Eisenberger and his colleagues found that grade-schoolers given small amounts of money for thinking up creative uses for everyday objects then generated more creative titles for movies and short stories than did children who had first thought up creative uses for the objects without getting paid or who didn’t perform the initial task. Similarly, college students devised more-creative short story titles when promised a financial reward for creativity.

In surveys at retail outlets of an electronics and appliance company, Eisenberger also learned that employees who expected financial or other rewards for superior performance found their jobs more interesting and enjoyable than did those who didn’t link performance to external rewards. Supervisors rated on-the-job creativity as higher among reward-oriented employees.

However, financial success by itself has its downsides, according to a report in the June Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Ariel Malka and Jennifer A. Chatman, both of the University of California, Berkeley surveyed 124 individuals in the first year of a 2-year master’s program in business administration. Follow-up responses were obtained 4 to 9 years later, when most of the participants worked in jobs that paid from $80,000 to $2 million annually.

Those who were working mainly for intellectual stimulation, opportunities for innovation, and other intrinsic values reported lower job satisfaction and less happiness in their lives as they earned higher salaries, say Malka and Chatman. In contrast, people who entered the business world with the up-front, brazen goal of making lots of money felt better about their jobs and generally happier as their paychecks grew fatter.

Making major money at a job chosen for intrinsic reasons causes people to question their motives for accepting the position and to lose the joy in their work, Malka theorizes. Money-oriented folk may instead bask in the glow of a high income, since they regard it as the primary sign of success and personal worth.

No one has come up with a formula for happiness and well-being that works for everyone, and any factor, including material reward, will have different effects on different people. This much is clear: Money and possessions hold a place of honor in our society that they are unlikely to lose any time soon. And that means research into materialism’s effects on well-being represents a growth industry.

Pricey Pursuits Take Charge

The making of a consumer nation

Social scientists have long looked at the United States as a crucible of mass consumption. In 1899, economist Thorstein Veblen wrote of the “conspicuous consumption” of goods and services by people who could afford them. Other scientists soon noted a tendency for people to make purchases on the basis of comparisons with what their friends and neighbors bought.

After World War II, a consumer ethos sank deep roots into the U.S. economy, politics, and culture, asserts Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen in A Consumer’s Republic (2003, Knopf). Mass consumption and prosperity became basic components of citizenship as people were encouraged to buy for the good of the country, as well as for themselves. Self-interested citizens increasingly treated government policies as market transactions, to be judged solely by the personal benefits that flowed from the policies, Cohen asserts.

The economic boom of the 1990s shifted consumer practices and attitudes into materialistic overdrive, says Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. No longer content to “keep up with the Joneses” in their own neighborhoods, a wide array of people sought fancy homes, luxury cars, and other trappings of upper–middle-class life.

Training for the consumer culture begins early. Corporations currently spend about $12 billion annually on efforts to influence what kids buy, often pitching the products directly to children rather than to their parents. With such a media blitz on their kids, parents trying to keep materialism in check may feel outgunned.

Sociologist Daniel T. Cook of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that the trick for concerned parents is “to incite children to adopt a critical posture toward media and consumption.”


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.