For the love of stuff
Dr. Marsha Richins, a professor in the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri — Columbia, has published numerous journal articles on the subjects of materialism, consumer values and social comparison. She said America’s emphasis on one’s acquisition of material possessions is by no means unique to the country, though the pervasiveness of its materialistic tendencies does make it distinct from other cultures.
“America, historically, has been a very materialistic culture,” Dr. Richins said, “and even before our country was founded, people were using consumption to demonstrate their status and (in the early days) demonstrate their favor in God’s eyes.”
While piety and the fear of God may, in some religious branches, determine one’s social status, modern American society’s socio-economic ranking in large stems from material possessions.
As a nation rooted in a diverse composition of religions — including, but not limited to, Catholics, Quakers, French Huguenots, Jews, Dutch Calvinists, Scottish Presbyterians and German Reformed priests — as well as religious freedom, the U.S. has long been a melting pot for differing ideologies and religious practices. Driven by a need to belong, in much the same ways religion created community, Dr. Richins said material possessions satisfy one’s need to publicly display his or her status.
Senior Daphnée Brown has nannied and babysat in her free time since she was 11, earning $12 an hour. She said she puts a lot of what she earns into savings, which allows her to have a degree of economic freedom, and spends the rest of what she makes on gas, personal products and, when she feels like treating herself, shopping.
“I am very money-conscious, so I don’t like to spend everything that I have,” Brown said, “but I do believe in a little self-reward.”
“America, historically, has been a very materialistic culture.”
When she chooses to splurge, Brown said it is usually on clothes and, very rarely, on makeup. During last year’s Cyber Monday sales, three of her favorite palettes were marked down to $30 from their usual $50, so she “bought all three for $90 in an instant.” After going Black Friday shopping this year, Brown said she is “reaping the consequences of spending too much” as she sees through the sum in her bank account. As styles change or she has an inclination to buy a new item, Brown purchases new clothes, typically from cheap brands with a low price tag.
“I would rather go to the store and shop because then I have more control over what I buy,” Brown said. “I can try it on; I can see how it works, how it fits. If I shop online, I’m risking buying something that won’t fit, that will come in damaged or not the quality that I want it at.”
The constant high quality apparel she finds with Nike and Adidas appeal to Brown. When she wants a more dressy look she may purchase an item from Wild Fable’s selection, but to her, brands don’t matter. Brown said she would rather her clothes look good on her and be affordable than have a name-brand, be expensive and risk getting a hole in them.
For her internship, senior Lindey Pellock said she has to dress in outfits that are comfortable, look professional and are somewhat modest, a combination of criteria requiring different fashions than what she would normally wear to school. Usually Pellock spends her money on clothes, gas and food, but she said she has decreased her spending now that the money she is using is hers and not her mom’s. As soon as she turned 16, Pellock got her first job working at Justice, and she now works at HuHot Mongolian Grill.
“Part of [getting a job] was having the independence of having my own money,” Pellock said. “I didn’t want to have to rely on my mom every time I wanted to buy something, so once I had a Debit card I was like, ‘I can buy things whenever I want to.’ It feels more like the first step into being your own person.”
Employment allows youth to increase their capacity to take responsibility, develop time-management skills and communicate with adults, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Additionally, in work settings teens feel more like adults and tend to have high rates of job satisfaction. Fifty percent of people ages 16-24 held either full- or part-time jobs in 2018, and in October of that year 22 percent of females and 19 percent of males in high school were employed, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan research center Child Trends.
The National Association of Sales Representatives, a global sales association, reported the two reasons why a consumer will purchase a good or service is, first, to fulfill his or her need to avoid pain or a loss and, second, to gain pleasure. During her Algebra 2 Honors class her sophomore year, Pellock would shop online, though she doesn’t recall purchasing anything. She said browsing different stores’ online indexes was a way for her to do something other than math; the items she found tended to end up on her Christmas or birthday lists. Courtney Cothren is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Marketing at the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri — Columbia. She said marketers use a variety of strategies to convince customers to buy their products.
“During the holiday season, one of the most prevalent techniques we see is the use of price promotions and scarcity to increase purchase intention,” Cothren said. “If customers believe that they are getting a good deal and that there is a limited time to act in order to get the deal, that works well.”
Two-for-one offers, temporary price cuts and coupons help manufacturers and retailers increase sales and bring in new, and repeat customers. Once an advertising campaign ends, however, the Harvard Business Review said research shows sales fall back to normal levels and patrons return to their consistent buying habits. Although price promotions may help businesses in the short-term, purchases may decrease over time as consumers search for the best deals.
“A lot of culture revolving around shopping and clothes is based on the brands and what they promote,” Brown said. “Consumer culture to me would mean buying something for the status that comes with the product.”
In a study of 187 U.S. student consumers, materialism showed a positive relationship to “buying products that confer status,” while it negatively related to “consumer independence,” according to a study published by the NCBI. The study also stated “the association between materialism and consumer independence is completely mediated by consuming for status,” and this status conscious behavior influences consumers to purchase items following social norms.
“I noticed that a lot of people flocked toward the same things. I worked in a little kids store, but our products looked the same as if you walked across the hallway to Pink,” Pellock said. “Our products looked pretty much the same, just shrunken down, so I think it’s just like people follow each other. I think it’s kind of like the wanting to fit in.”
The rise of American consumerism began in the 1950s during the Baby Boom, which in turn fueled national economic growth. Suburban living became the new “American Dream” complete with a one story house, small backyard and a front lawn that was seemingly identical to one’s neighbors,” according to an article by Rollins College. As a suburban lifestyle took hold, television reinforced traditional gender roles in programs like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” Such media also disseminated a standardized picture of what the ideal American family looked like, acted like and owned.
First proposed by Norwegian-American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” his idea of conspicuous consumption, buying items outside of one’s price range to increase his or her prestige, took hold across the country. Veblen claimed a society is characterized by its wasted money and time. The concept of pecuniary emulation — working to meet or surpass another’s status as related to wealth — came about as consumer culture continued to expand. One fundamental way companies influence consumers to spend money, Dr. Richins said, is by convincing them they will be better off if they purchase a particular good.
“Because most of us in the U.S. have our basic needs for housing, food and clothing pretty well met, companies often appeal to people’s psychological needs, such as the need to fit in with the group and be liked, the need to feel okay about ourselves and the desire to express who we are.”
“Because most of us in the U.S. have our basic needs for housing, food and clothing pretty well met, companies often appeal to people’s psychological needs, such as the need to fit in with the group and be liked, the need to feel okay about ourselves and the desire to express who we are,” Dr. Richins said. “Most of the time, this is done through subtle means. Instead of an advertisement saying, ‘People will like you better if you wear our shoes,’ the ad might show a close-knit group of happy young people shopping for or wearing their brand.”
During adolescence, people begin to consider how their identities affect their lives through social interactions, which can make teenagers self-conscious, according to the intermediary organization ACT for Youth. In this way, children may look toward brands and material possessions to characterize their outward identities. Through their possessions they symbolically show others their personality traits or to “be cool,” according to Moriah Houser’s marketing undergraduate honors thesis, “Why Teens Today Wear the Brands They Wear and How This is Affected by Reference Groups” for the University of Arkansas. Houser said teens question whether they should conform to existing social standards and patterns of behavior or choose instead to portray individuality in what they wear and how they act.
“In middle school it was just like everyone looked the same, and they all wore the same things, and it was kind of like — I felt like in sixth grade it was harder for me because I didn’t really understand why we were all trying to look the same,” Pellock said. “I didn’t get it.”
To better understand materialism, Dr. Richins and Dr. Scott Dawson, the Dean of the Orfalea College of Business at Portland State University, developed the first scale to measure materialism in the early 1990s. Drs. Richins and Dawson explained their scale’s three components: possession-defined success, acquisition centrality and acquisition as the pursuit of happiness. They said those with higher scores, compared to those with lower scores, were “less satisfied with their lives,” according to an abstract published in the Oxford Academic Journal of Consumer Research.
The Greater Good Magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California — Berkeley said studies for more than 20 years have “consistently found that people who score high on Drs. Richins and Dawson’s scale score lower on just about every major scale that scientists use to measure happiness.” Other studies, such as ones from the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, have likewise found materialistic people experience less positive emotions, more negative emotions and less meaningful lives than those who place a lower value or level of importance on physical pos
“My greatest, and saddest, realization is that materialism leads people to make a lot of bad choices that have long-term negative implications for their lives,” Dr. Richin said, “but materialism is deeply embedded in our psyches and not likely to change.”
In his article, “The psychology of social class: How socioeconomic status impacts thought, feelings, and behaviour,” which was published in the NCBI in 2018, Antony Manstead, Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, argued “the material conditions in which people grow up and live have a lasting impact on their personal and social identities.”
Unlike members of the middle-class, Manstead said people in lower- and working-classes are less likely to define themselves in terms of their socioeconomic status and will instead have “interdependent self-concepts,” understanding oneself based on his or her position in a group. With the value American society places on possessions as status symbols, Brown said how someone is raised and what he or she values will influence one’s susceptibility to conspicuous consumption, buying items to fit in with others of a similar or higher social class, and peer pressure in high school.
“Especially going to a big school where there’s a lot of diversity in family income, I feel like we experience the high-end families having more brand names, more products, more high-class association, and then that makes others feel that they need that, too, to have that status,” Brown said. “I don’t need the brand to have status. There’s more depth to a person than what they’re wearing.”
With “high-end, high-status brand names,” Brown said social media has the power to make teenagers believe owning the newest phone, living in the fanciest house or wearing the most expensive clothes can bring them popularity. Social media can generate a pressure to look perfect, hide imperfections and may cause low self-esteem and exacerbate self-doubt, according to the independent, national nonprofit Child Mind Institute.
“People go to all lengths to get a selfie in a unique location or Instagram a meal at a cool restaurant or buy a new lipstick with the right brand,” Dr. Richin said. “However, in the long run this is a completely ineffective in solving the problem of how to feel good about ourselves.”
When people wear brand-name clothing, Pellock said she sees it as a mark of socio-economic status in that the wearer wants to present himself or herself in a certain way, which in turn can promote overspending. Advertising, conspicuous consumption, impulsive buying, the concept of retail therapy and prioritizing spending over saving are all factors that influence one’s likelihood of overspending, according to the personal finance education program BalanceTrack.
“I definitely think that everyone wants to be the same, and they want to have the most expensive things,” Pellock said. “Like especially here at Rock Bridge, like why do you need $300 shoes? I don’t understand.”
Having moved to Gentry Middle School from an elementary school outside the Columbia Public Schools district, Pellock said she experienced a culture shock entering an atmosphere where “everyone cared about what they were wearing and the brands,” which seemed foreign and materialistic to her. When she is buying a piece of clothing, Pellock said she first considers if she will actually wear it or not. Because she is going off to college soon, she said she is beginning to get rid of some of her old clothes so she can more easily move out. If she thinks she will wear the item, then she determines if she already owns an article similar to it because she said she tends to gravitate toward similar styles, colors and materials.
“There was one day when I went shopping, I think down at the lake, and I spent like $300 in one store, and I was like, ‘Oh, God,’” Pellock said. “I’ve gotten less impulsive about it. At first I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna buy this,’ and then I keep thinking about it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe not. Maybe I’ll wait, or maybe I just don’t need it.’”
“We don’t have very good skills in understanding why we want things and actually analyzing whether a purchase will meet those needs.”
A few of the main reasons people impulse buy are loss aversion, enjoyment and a biased evaluation of a product’s use, according to the psychology, science and philosophy website brainfodder.org. At the beginning of high school, Pellock said she spent so much of her mom’s money that she gave Pellock a budget. Once she got her own job, Pellock realized she needed money for gas and food, so she became more conscious of how much she was spending and makes sure to have enough money in her account before she buys a non-necessity item or outfit.
“Unfortunately, most of us aren’t able to figure out in advance which 10 percent of our purchases are worthwhile,” Dr. Richin said. “We don’t have very good skills in understanding why we want things and actually analyzing whether a purchase will meet those needs.”
Well-chosen consumption can have positive outcomes and benefit a person’s life, Dr. Richin said; however, she said approximately 90 percent of what the average person purchases is “pretty useless,” and only a small percent improves one’s life. In general, Cothren said American culture values consumerism and individualism.
“Marketers tell us that buying something new will make us happy, and it does but it’s fleeting,” Cothren said. “Research shows that we actually get more happiness from experiences than from material goods, and culture is starting to illustrate that as well.”
Growing up, Brown said she didn’t come from a lot. Her family has experienced financial problems to the point where they have almost been homeless. At times her life has been extremely challenging, but she said her mom raised her to value personal connection more than material objects. The main difference she sees between “materialistic people” and “people people” is what they value.
“I feel like a lot of people would rather have a new car, the newest, best car, over having a deeper connection with somebody,” Brown. “So the way I was raised has really put having a connection, listening to someone, talking to someone, getting to know their true self over liking their appearance or their clothes or their products.”
Human connection rather than tangible possessions allows relationships to form, which in turn provides people with a sense of belonging, a sense of identity and a support-system, according to the mental health and therapy website goodtherapy.org. An article in the Scientific American, a science magazine, explained how human survival is dependent on social connection rather than individualistic, materialistic behaviors.
“At my dance studio, I dance with a lot of people who have parents with bigger bank accounts than mine, and so they would always have like the Lululemon and the new iPhone and the new this and the new that, and I wasn’t able to have that,” Brown said. “So at that age, it was hard for me to understand why I couldn’t, and I definitely felt the need to have the brand name stuff, just because at that age I wasn’t exposed to hard work and the meaning of a true, good person.”
As youth compare themselves to those around them, Dr. Richin said teenagers may try to figure out how they are better, smarter, funnier, more athletic or more attractive than other people. Likewise, she said they may also search out ways in which they do not live up to such comparisons. As they begin to develop a sense of self and form unique identities during adolescence, Dr. Richin said a culture of comparison can make people feel as if they are in some way falling short, which she said then leads to feelings of insecurity.
“This is a really big driver of consumption and seems to be getting only bigger as the influence of social media continues to grow,” Dr. Richin said. “It is especially a big deal for young people, because part of being young involves not knowing exactly who you are, why you deserve to exist, and whether there is anything of value about yourself at all. The easiest way to learn about ourselves is to compare ourselves with others (especially our peers).”
How materialistic are you?
I like to own things that impress people.
The things that I own aren't all that important to me.
I'd be happier if I could afford to buy more things.
I try to keep my life simple, as far as possessions are concerned.
It sometimes bothers me quite a bit that I can't afford to buy all the things I like.
Although she may purchase the occasional name brand merchandise, Brown said she likes to buy products that are out of the ordinary. She also said she tends to buy clothing and other items because of their comfort and convenience, as well as their affordability, rather than because of societal pressure.
“Research shows that we actually get more happiness from experiences than from material goods, and culture is starting to illustrate that as well.”
“I definitely have been judged for what I buy, what I’ve bought instead of buying something else,” Brown said. “‘An extra 10 bucks could have gotten you this.’ Well, you know, it’s one of those things where 10 bucks means a lot to me.”
Whenever people criticise her for what she chooses to spend her money on, Brown said she feels sorry for them because of the lack of connection she sees in their life. She said she is lucky to not have the multitude of problems that comes with caring about people for their outside appearance rather than the content of their character.
“To me I don’t care if you’re dressed in diamonds, like if you’re a crappy person, you’re a crappy person,” Brown said. “Especially in high school, I think there is the misbelief that having brand-names, having high-end stuff gives you status and gives you meaning, because in the end it’s not. It doesn’t provide you any pizzazz.”
How do you think materialism affects your purchasing habits? Let us know in the comments below.