Sticks and stones may break our bones, but some words make us materialistic!

One of the most consistent findings in the study of human behavior over the last 10 or so years is that the more people in economically developed countries place high value on pursuing material wealth and the accumulation of material possessions, the less happy they are.

It isn’t simply that more is less. Rather, when a person habitually values having over doing, a host of other issues come along for the ride. The problem with this “keep up with (or stay ahead of) the Joneses” strategy, is that it is very expensive and unsatisfying for any but the most wealthy. Meanwhile, when it’s about who has the most or coolest stuff, other people become competitors rather than compadres. It’s a vicious, expensive and ultimately unwinable cycle.

The thing is, even the most doing-oriented among us is sometimes (or often) moved by materialistic impulses (I am typing this blog into the result of such an impulse). As those of you who have been following this blog will already know, the source of these impulses is often hidden or so subtle that we would not normally perceive it. A recent study demonstrated this clearly, shedding light on a very subtle manipulation that causes us to be more materialistic and less friend-like in our outlook.

In their study, researchers Monika Bauer, James Wilkie, Jung Kim, and Galen Bodenhausen of Northwestern University asked participants to imagine that they were one of four people sharing a common water source. In the scenario, there has been a drought, and now there is a water shortage. Participants were put into two groups. In one group, the four people in the scenario were referred to as “consumers,” while in the other group the four people are referred to as “individuals.”

After being given the facts about each person’s prior water usage, 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 to them problem (ie, by cutting their own water usage).

Researchers found that participants in the “consumers” condition rated themselves as less responsible, the others as competitors more than cooperators, 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 and be “consumers” rather than simply people. This subtle “priming” is happening all the time. This study demonstrates that fostering such a consumer mentality has real and unfortunate consequences for how we think and behave. The bad news is that none of us are fully immune. But, the good news is that being aware of how you are being “primed” is often enough to eliminate the effect.

How can you find out where you stand in the consumerism game? We encourage you to take the Materialistic Values Scale and the Experiential Buying Tendencies Scales 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 influences 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.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values.  To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase.

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 recent graduate from the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory at San Francisco State University. Follow @kerryfc


About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
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