I don’t see myself as especially materialistic, and you probably don’t see yourself that way either. The fact is, I don’t know anyone who actually takes pride in acquiring more and more stuff, and many of my friends decry the commercialization of the holiday season. That’s a good thing, because all the evidence says that people who are preoccupied with possessions are not very happy people. Consumerism is linked to anxiety, lousy relationships, and poor mental and physical health.
But let’s not get too self-righteous quite yet. We may not derive our core sense of self-worth from what we buy and own, but does that mean we’re immune to all the cues in our consumer culture? Unless you live in a cave, you have been relentlessly bombarded since before Thanksgiving with images of goods that are novel, luxurious, or necessary for personal fulfillment. Is it possible that these ubiquitous messages might awaken the inner consumer in all of us, leading to all those unsavory social consequences?
That’s the idea that Northwestern University psychological scientist Galen Bodenhausen has been exploring in the laboratory. He and his colleagues suspected that even the purest anti-materialist might, under the right circumstances, respond to situational triggers, and that this mindset might have an immediate, untoward effect on well-being. This happens because a materialistic mindset activates certain values—wealth, achievement, power and status—while suppressing others, notably concern about others. This in turn leads to dissatisfaction with one’s life, and to social disengagement.
That’s the theory, which the scientists explored in four studies. The first was fairly straightforward. Volunteers were seated in private cubicles and asked to rate the pleasantness of various images. Half of them were exposed to pictures of luxury consumer goods—jewelry, electronics, cars—while the others, the controls, saw neutral images. Then, ostensibly as part of a different study, all the volunteers completed measures of positive and negative emotions, and their preferences for activities with other people. The results were clear. Those whose inner materialist had been cued were significantly more depressed and anxious than the control group. They were also less inclined to engage in social activities. Notably, all it took to trigger these negative emotional effects was very brief exposure to pictures—much as you would see in a Christmas catalog or TV advertisement.
To reexamine these findings a different way, the scientists ran another experiment in which they told some volunteers they would be working on a “Consumer Reaction Study.” They had to check a box identifying themselves as “an American consumer.” The controls identified themselves as American “citizens” and participated in a “Citizen Reaction Study.” The purpose of this ruse was to focus only some of the volunteers on their identity as a consumer, to see if this shaped their thinking about values. And it did. When they completed a measure of automatic, unconscious biases, the “consumers” tended strongly toward values having to do with self-enhancement, like wealth, image and success. The “citizens” in the study showed no such bias.
The two other studies were variations on the same idea. As described in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, one showed that consumer cues trigger greater competitiveness; the other that these cues lead to selfish, less community-minded, actions. Taken together, these experiments document the rapid, adverse effects of materialistic thinking on personal well-being. Apparently when people start to seek value outside of the self, in extrinsic things, this mindset leads to a cascade of unpleasant effects: Self-comparisons and competitiveness result in dissatisfaction and anxiety, which in turn diminish trust and the desire to connect with others. In short, a not so wonderful life.
It’s not clear from these experiments how long these distressing effects last. But in a way it doesn’t matter. The ubiquity of these consumerist messages in everyday life—and especially during the holiday season—almost guarantees that, even if any single effect is not enduring, another cue will inevitably follow, reigniting materialistic thinking again and again, every shopping day until Christmas.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, is now out in paperback. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post.