The origins of greed: A closer look at personality and materialism

The origins of greed.

Posted Aug 15, 2010

These days you’d be hard pressed to find someone who is opposed to the view that we are living in an increasingly materialistic world. Every day, there’s a new must-have item, with people going to ever increasing lengths to get their hands on them, no better typified than the long queues of camped out punters eager to get their hands on the new iPhone 4 released not too long ago. And as with most things, everyone’s level of materialism differs. So what are the causes of these differences?

Firstly, there’s the big one – sex differences. Men will argue to great length about how women’s materialistic tendencies are much greater than
those of men, citing the commonly held notion that women tend to look for partners that have significant wealth (the evolutionary psychology argument, and there is compelling data on this). When it comes to materialism, however, research shows that men are significantly more materialistic than their female counterparts (to which evolutionary psychologist would answer: it's because they have to generate sufficient wealth to attract women! But ask Kanazawa about this, not me).

So, are there any personality effects? It would seem so. A lot of evidence suggest that those with a greater disposition to be affected by their emotions - so, high Neuroticism scorers - display greater levels of materialism than those who are more emotionally stable. As always, Neuroticism seems detrimental then, though let's not forget that materialism can have positive consequences, particularly if care about material things!

The fact that personality, especially the biologically-based trait of Neuroticism, affects materialism, suggests that materialism may have a genetic or hereditary basis, but are some just destined to become more materialistic? Perhaps not. Think of the stereotypical “rich kids” and you will find mostly spoiled brats but sometimes the differences between siblings, even identical twins, can be remarkable. Furthermore, research suggests that it is those who grew up in an environment of economic hardship who end up being more materialistic. The explanation is quite simple: those who grew up with whatever they wanted never really develop a passion for what they would want to, but cannot, have.

Alas, it does seem that no-one can really doubt the more negative effects of materialism, at least when it comes to subjective-well being or happiness. Indeed, there is plenty of research to suggest that a materialistic disposition has a negative effect on personal well-being in general. This can be manifested as lower levels of satisfaction with work, with materialistic individuals seemingly less satisfied with their jobs. Some research has also suggested that this leads to strife with the family, as they’re seen to get in the way of their precious work time, which is the number one way for them to acquire the means to get their hands on those material possessions - ironically, often with the means of providing for the family.

Recent research suggests that many of the associations between personality and materialism are dependent on people's level of job and life control, or what, in broader terms, we could refer to as self-efficacy. But correlations are generally weak and there are many unexplained aspects of materialism, even when you factor in more than personality variables.

Want to find out how materialistic you are? Take part in this very short (7 minute) survey and get instant feedback on your materialism score!

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