Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Som

Subtle messages can cause us to be more materialistic and less social.

Posted Apr 15, 2012

Among the most consistent findings in the study of human behavior is this: the more people value pursuing material wealth and the accumulation of material possessions, the less happy they are. It's not that more is less; rather, habitually valuing "having" over "doing" leads to a host of negative outcomes. Keeping up with the Joneses is both very expensive and unsatisfying. When life is about having the coolest stuff, other people become competitors rather than compadres. It’s a vicious, costly, and unwinnable cycle.

Even the most doing-oriented people are sometimes (maybe often) susceptible to materialistic impulses. The source of these impulses is often so subtle that we may not perceive it. In their study, Monika Bauer, James Wilkie, Jung Kim, and Galen Bodenhausen of Northwestern University asked participants to imagine they were one of four people sharing a common water source. However, there has been a drought, and now there is a water shortage. Some participants read that the four people were “consumers” while other participants read that the four people were “individuals.” Participants were then asked (1) to rate how responsible their own character in the scenario was for the water shortage, (2) whether they saw others in the scenario are partners or competitors in solving the water shortage problem, and (3) how obligated they felt to be part of the solution.

The researchers found that participants in the “consumers” condition rated themselves as less responsible, saw the other group members as competitors, and were less willing to be part of the solution than did participants in the “individuals” condition. In other words, simply referring to people as “consumers” rather than “individuals” caused participants to be less generous, accept less responsibility, and to view the others as competitors rather than allies.

We are constantly bombarded with messages that prompt us to think like “consumers” rather than as people. This subtle “priming” happens all the time, and that study demonstrated that fostering a consumer mentality has real, and unfortunate, consequences for how we think and behave. While none of us are fully immune, the good news is that being aware of how you are being primed is often enough to eliminate the messaging effect.

How can you find out where you stand in the consumerism game? At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people's spending habits, happiness, and values. To learn about your spending habits and what influences your buying behavior, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase. We encourage you to take the Materialistic Values Scale and find out about your own values—as well as those of your friends. Then you might try the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, which measures the extent to which the values of your family and friends influence your own behavior. We think you may learn a lot about how you relate to money, spending and your social circle. The results might be surprising.

The article referenced above is called, “Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being,” and will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal, Psychological Science.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a graduate student in the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory at San Francisco State University.

More Posts