The psychology of consumerism

This is a guest post from David M. Carter, a graduate of the master of applied positive psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and the first graduate of the program to emphasize the inherent link between increased well-being and sustainable consumption.

A recent story in my local newspaper dealt with a sad-case family. The son was in jail for drugs, and his mother was trying desperately to find a way to give her son hope. The story described her stark home, which she shared with her son before he went to jail, containing four cats, a 50-inch plasma Panasonic and little else. The mom was particularly motivated to get back her son's 2000 BMW and 2001 Audi Quattro, both of which were recently stolen by his “friends”. She felt that by getting his cars back for him, it would give him some hope for the future.

The newspaper story addressed how this family is dealing with a lot of deep-seated issues. Yet, the plasma TV and European cars stand out as symbols of an illness that exists in our society that few want to think about, and many don't even know about.

Consumerism can be a devastating psychological addiction that saps our financial resources, well-being, and hope. I'm sure that meth wasn't the only drug in this household. The big-screen TV was likely running non-stop, altering this poor family member's brains by imparting the questionable wisdom that having nice things and living a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption is the answer to all of their dreams and woes.

Unknowing Victims

Juliet Schor, a leading scholar on the culture of consumerism in the U.S., recently said that we have reached a critical point in our culture: The average American woman now buys more than 52 items of new clothing each year — more than one per week. Of course, women don't need that many new clothes, yet they buy them anyway. Why? Well, much to our chagrin, most of us have been brainwashed by our consumer culture to over-consume. Worse, over time this hyper-consumption has become part of our identities. Our values, attitudes, habits, and practices reflect this culture of addiction.

Many continue to believe that it's not possible for them to become brainwashed without their knowledge. “I hit the mute button during commercials,” they say. Or, “I digitally record my shows before watching them and fast-forward through the commercials.”

It's true this may help reduce exposure to the lure of market materialism. Yet, the programs themselves are often the culprits. One study found that the cost of the lifestyles represented in the most popular TV sitcoms are well beyond what the average American can afford. We see these lifestyles and, over time, expect them. Another study found that the more a person watches television, the more money they spend. This was in spite of the participants' beliefs that they weren't affected by commercials.

What people typically fail to recognize is that advertisers target people with money to burn. We're endlessly exposed to advertising directed at the rich. And things have gotten worse over the past fifty years.

For example, a research study that looked at magazine ads found that magazines in the fifties and sixties contained mostly ads for household and lower-cost products. The same magazines today contain ads for many more luxury items, such as Lexus automobiles, and Hilton Hawaiian Vacations.

We subconsciously believe that we are the targets of this advertising, and that the high-cost products and lifestyles portrayed are our birthright as Americans. This leads us to spend well beyond our means. In fact, during the near-peak of the recent economic boom, the personal savings rate was in negative territory.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

This brings up a huge point about the impact of consumerism on our actions. Experts in the field call it “referencing”. We reference, either intentionally or otherwise, to lifestyles represented to us (in the media or in real life) that we find attractive. We create a vision of ourselves living this idealized lifestyle, and then behave in ways that help us to realize the vision.

The problem with this process is that the lifestyles most often portrayed, and ultimately referenced, are well beyond the means of all but a very small percentage of Americans. We aspire to something that the vast majority of us cannot possibly achieve. And, in this attempt to realize our aspirations, we borrow heavily, feel poorly about ourselves because we just can't seem to get there, and become addicted to a way of living that gradually and inexorably separates us from the things in life that bring us the most joy.

Important work being done by psychologists specializing in Self-Determination Theory has shown over and over again that people who live a life of intrinsic motivation are much happier than those who live a life dominated by extrinsic motivation.

  • Intrinsic motivation is represented by self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling.
  • Extrinsically-motivated people, on the other hand, focus on financial gain, their appearance, and social popularity. They generally seek acceptance by something or someone outside themselves.

Intrinsically-motivated people are driven by their own values, and don't feel the need to be accepted by some outside entity. Perhaps most importantly, it turns out that those who are the most extrinsically-motivated, and stay that way for a long time, begin to lose touch with their authentic intrinsic motivations — the things in life that bring them the most joy. As they continually seek financial gain and recognition by others in a seemingly never-ending display of profligate consumption, they find that they have become addicted. Finding their way back to their true selves becomes an overwhelming task.

Further, they're often not even aware that this vicious cycle is happening, and continue to ramp-up their acquisitive lifestyle, constantly seeking that which will make them feel fulfilled. It just never seems to happen, and they become depressed and often describe being “lost”.

Note: You can read more about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in two papers (both PDF downloads): “The Independent Effects of Goal Contents and Motives on Well-Being” and “Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life”.

A Silver Lining

In the depths of addiction, it often appears that there's no way out. This is certainly the case with the cultural addiction of consumerism. We regularly hear that our economy is 70% dependent on consumer spending. Acting to jeopardize that economic “fact” is akin to locking yourself up in a rehab center. How am I going to get to the booze when I need it?

Fortunately, through all this there's a silver lining. Though you'll inevitably experience some withdrawal symptoms if you disconnect yourself from the extrinsic-motivations of our consumer culture, you'll find that they don't last long. Numerous anecdotal stories from readers of Get Rich Slowly (and elsewhere) demonstrate that they find it difficult to change at first. But soon they find that, when they look back on their profligate spending days, it seems like they were possessed by another person. How could they have been so stupid? They report being so much happier now. And their savings has grown from negative to robust.

There's more than just anecdotal evidence to show that living a less materialistic, consumeristic lifestyle will bring greater joy to your life.

Psychologists recently discovered that having a realistic expectation of financial means and lifestyle pays untold dividends toward greater well-being and happiness. To the extent that there is greater discrepancy between financial reality and financial expectations (a.k.a. financial desire discrepancy [PDF]), there's greater risk to your sense of well-being. Put another way, being satisfied with what you have will reap invaluable rewards. Being dissatisfied with what you have, and making a point of acquiring more, is the quickest way to dissatisfaction in life.

Of course, being inextricably tied to the advertising machine makes this difficult, if not impossible, to do. A good first step is to wean yourself from commercialized media a little at a time. You'll quickly recognize that you're not missing anything and, in fact, have more time on your hands to do the things you enjoy most. Disconnect and live better.

Well, perhaps there's hope for the poor family in the newspaper story after all. Rather than being victims of our consumer culture and insisting that getting the cars back will do the trick, they can let the cars go, sell the television, and focus on the best things in life. And, they can save money in the process.

More about...Psychology

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Eileen
Eileen
9 years ago

Very interesting stuff! I have never been a ‘typical’ female consumer, probably because my mother and older sisters aren’t either. I don’t shop for clothes unless I require an item that I just don’t have in my closet and those occasions are practically non-existent now (last thing I bought was some nice summer slacks for my son’s graduation last year). I don’t indulge in shoe or handbag shopping (I do love daypack/backpack/messenger bags – but fortunately they are cheap, I use them, and the don’t go out of fashion). Yet, I still am checking myself constantly to analyze my purchases… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

I love the fact that you look beyond whether or not you can afford something in your decision to buy it!

Charlotte
Charlotte
9 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

My favorite is the REI Garage Sale where they sell used or returned items. Returned items are mostly new, some are actually brand new with some minor cosmetic issues. At the last hour, they mark down all shoes for $5. My husband scored 5 pairs together for $25. I must admit we did not need all 5 pairs so this is consumerism in action…lol The article was a little hard to read but the message is clear. I notice myself buying more stuff when I watch TV. When I don’t watch much TV, I know exactly what will make me… Read more »

Mikey
Mikey
9 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

Articles like this blog post puzzle me. I don’t know anyone who DOESN’T buy only what they need, wait for sales, analyze their purchases, or buy used. I really don’t, and I never have. Am I unusual? I don’t think I am; after all, the odds are I am pretty average. And I live in California, supposedly ground zero of capitalist culture. After I posted the above, I was thinking more about it. My generation (and yeah I’m old) sees television as one form of entertainment. My tv is off more than it is on. Gen X and younger folks… Read more »

sasha
sasha
9 years ago
Reply to  Mikey

you very well may belong to a non-typical circle, because consumerism is the norm . All the macro-level problems we are facing have their roots in buying more than we need, the wants of majority of population are perilously close to greed. And whats fueling this greed is the advertizing.

Debt Payer
Debt Payer
9 years ago

Really great guest post. I liked the fact about the more tv you watch the more money you spend. I read it’s also true the more tv you watch the more calories you consume. I got rid of cable but I bet the same correlations exist with the internet–and as a blogging addict it seems I’m only spending more time on that now that I no longer have cable. Also, many people react poorly if you express anti-consumer attitudes. For example, my friends and family will constantly bug me about “Bringing back cable.” The consumer culture definitely feeds on itself.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Debt Payer

You would love Juliet Schor’s books for the general public, then – The Overspent American and the Overworked American are simple living classics, and full of those kinds of tidbits from her research.

xysea
xysea
9 years ago
Reply to  Debt Payer

I want to echo your sentiments. I am much happier now that I have stepped away from cable and magazines, put my spam filter on high and un-‘liked’ a bunch of companies on Facebook. I got sick of people trying to ‘sell’ me things and I am spending more and more time just enjoying what I have; I pared down my wardrobe and shoes/purses to just a few very well-made items that I can wear in endless combinations. I did the same with jewelry, CDs, DVDs, books and knick-knacks. While I can’t say I am total minimalist, I am mindfully… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago
Reply to  Debt Payer

I recently heard in a public Bible discourse that we get 5,000 ads a day. Computer, tv, billboards, bumper stickers, etc… That’s 2,000,000 a year!

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

Interesting post! I wonder how travel fits in to all of this though? Posts like this one tend to focus on material goods, but I’d argue we’re getting the same message about travel — that we’re not leading “the good life” if we’re not taking a yearly trip. With so much fuss about “bucket lists” it seems like we’re collecting experiences rather than stuff. (There’s been a lot written about “travel” versus “tourism”, so it kind of makes me wonder!) With people borrowing to go on big trips, isn’t overspending still overspending?

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

I agree — Americans tend to go on special trips partly to escape the horrorscape of sprawl, and to be in a pleasant, walkable setting for at least a little while.

People save up all year and then blow thousands just to be in a pedestrian-friendly, lovely environment for a week (if they’re lucky) … instead of getting involved and making our daily lives and our communities beautiful, safe, walkable, and vibrant.

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Amen, Betsy. Why is it “charming” to bicycle, take trains, or walk a pedestrian mall on vacation but we’re so unwilling to make the cultural changes in our lives that would allow us to live this way all the time?

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Because if your town was beautiful, you would get priced out and have to move. Check out Greenwich, CT, one of the most expensive suburbs in the U.S. They have adorable parks and cute non-chain shops and restaurants. Wherever your income lays on the on the wealth spectrum, your home surroundings reflect that.

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Actually, it’s the very scarcity of livable, walkable places that tends to drive up the prices of the few that do exist. But that only shows that we need lots and lots more livable, involved, vibrant communities, so more people can afford to live in them.

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Yes but the answer to that chicken or egg question is that money comes first–money is needed to invest into your community. Wealthy suburbs have high incomes who can support more expensive infrastructure. It’s lovely to say “there should be more walkable, beautiful communities” At one point, everyone was like “there should be more McMansions!” So many cities/states incentivized developers to create the cul-de-sac sprawl, and now plenty of people own McMansions but that proved to be unsustainable because there’s not enough people who can afford it. Anyways, sorry, I just take offense to the word “horrorscape” which sounds judgy–I… Read more »

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Alice D, you’ve got the process exactly backwards. Modest-priced places BECOME high-priced communities because of community involvement. After they begin to improve on measures of community cohesion, they become more desirable and as a result, property values rapidly improve until they are no longer modest-priced places. This is true both at the block, neighborhood, city, and regional scale. Not every high-priced place started as a low-priced place, but the community improvement process always results in subsequent value gains unless an external factor keeps value low. You’re also misunderstanding walkability. The highest predictor of walkability is ut not whether a place… Read more »

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

I’m confused about what you’re arguing. I said if you live in a community that suddenly became fashionably pretty/desirable, (like if next year your town had bicycle paths that serve less than 10% of the community and there was a ratio of 3:1 cupcake stores to hardware stores), you would eventually get priced out if you can’t keep up with all your new richer neighbors. Now you are telling me that modest-priced communities that improve, then typically become high-priced. Ok…I largely agree.

Coley
Coley
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

I don’t want to live in a “walkable” neighborhood, at least not in the sense that you imply. I own a 4,000+ square-foot house on 2.5 wooded acres in a nice subdivision in a top-rated public school district. With my kids, I walk or bike around my neighborhood all the time; when we want to go to a store or restaurant or ice-cream shop, we’ll take one of our two cars. I don’t want stores located in my neighborhood–not big-box stores, not mom-and-pop stores. I like playing with my kids in the backyard or reading on my screened-in porch and… Read more »

RGD
RGD
1 year ago
Reply to  Coley

The problem is that such unwalkable neighborhoods are vastly oversupplied, while walkable neighborhoods are vastly undersupplied. People like you have many options. People who want to be able to be car independent do not.

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Where is anyone telling you what to want? Actually, your choices are not quite your own: your way of life is massively subsidized by federal transportation spending, which heavily favors suburban roads and highways over urban areas; HUD policy; the mortgage interest deduction; and externalities imposed on waterways and air. But feel free to believe that you are making your own choices, even though urban dwellers are having to subsidize your way of life. Sprawl is extremely costly, but the costs are hidden to the sprawl dwellers — this market distortion causes more people to choose that lifestyle because its… Read more »

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Its the scarcity of the places that makes you want them. It’s like consumerism. If only 1% of the population has a Ferrari, you’re like, “I want!!” But then if everyone had Ferrari’s, you’re like meh. Because that 1% is already looking for the next hot, scarce thing to price up so you’ll want that too. Right now that fashion fads for the elite are posh neighborhoods and exotic vacations. Basically, some of us are offended you called suburbs a horrorscape. American suburbs are quite scarce AND desirable when you compare it globally. America is only about 4% of the… Read more »

Coley
Coley
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Betsy, The mortgage-interest tax deduction, to which I happen to be opposed, is most certainly available to homeowners in all types of neighborhoods. Yes, there is a significant amount of taxpayer funding for highways and roads, which, on a per-capita basis, tilts toward residents of low-density areas. There are also very significant gasoline taxes to offset this. Conversely, the infrastructure and operating costs for public transportation, which primarily exists in and serves residents of higher-density areas, is also heavily taxpayer supported. You’ll have to educate me on the waterways thing. You didn’t specifically tell me what to want, but you… Read more »

K.C.
K.C.
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

When my wife and I travel, we find the opposite to be true. Leaving home for a few days just makes us appreciate our home (neighborhood & city) even more. There’s no place like home.

xysea
xysea
9 years ago
Reply to  K.C.

While I am certain what you say is true, it might still be nice to have walking paths, public transport and walkable communities for a lot of reasons.

I enjoyed time in England, and while I was happy to come home, I certainly wouldn’t mind more trains and buses and fewer drivers in the US.

🙂

Rock Modestly
Rock Modestly
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

“Horrorscapes of the sprawl” – my new favorite phrase. Thanks Betsy!!!

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

I was honestly almost speechless when I read “horrorscape of sprawl” and how you generalized that Americans go on vacation, partly, to escape such a terrible way of life. I appreciate that you find sprawl horrible, but please don’t put that motivation onto a generalized American public. There are plenty of people like me who like sprawl just fine AND also appreciate going on vacation to experience different places. Enjoying a visit to another way of life or culture or even just the next state over, does not mean that I am dissatisfied with where I’m coming from. I do… Read more »

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Jaime B

Yeah, travel is just supposed to be a temporary change of scenery. Or said another way, vacation is an escape from the drudgery of routine.

xysea1971
xysea1971
9 years ago
Reply to  Jaime B

@Jaime B – By all means enjoy your sprawl. I would just like to point out that it is sprawl that is bad on the environment and a huge waste of resources. Mindless building just to build, to support mindless consumerism and unsustainable lifestyles. I certainly understand peoples’ reluctance to embrace the reality of where we are on an environmental scale and to embrace change – because both are very hard to do. But I have not actually ever heard anyone enjoy sprawl before now. Who enjoys badly engineered traffic? Or pollution from too many cars? Or not being able… Read more »

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago
Reply to  Jaime B

Perhaps our definition of sprawl is different. “Mindless building just to build, to support mindless consumerism and unsustainable lifestyles.” lol, egg on my face for assuming, but I thought you were (simplified) basically speaking about sprawling suburbs vs urban living. If so, then I can’t imagine why you think a suburb is mindless building to support consumerism and unsustainable lifestyles. As with anything else in life, it’s a continuum. I live in the KC Metro area and if I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t get to my current job within a reasonable amount of time (2-3 hrs at least,… Read more »

Erin
Erin
9 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

I am one of those people who chooses to spend my money on travel rather than stuff. Travel enriches my life. I experience different cultures which fosters understanding between human beings and kills ignorance. There have been studies that show experiences make people more happy than things. Of course, you can choose to have experiences without travel, but if you never step out of your bubble, you might have a tougher time relating to things happening all over the world.

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Erin

I love travel, and agree it is enriching. But it’s sad to see people live for just one week a year. And so much of travel is to escape a deadening physical and social environment at home.

I just wish people would invest in their own communities and take part in local and civic affairs, so that they can enjoy a wonderful community year-round instead of a week out of the year.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  Erin

I agree that travel can be rewarding and enriching 🙂 I’m not arguing against spending on travel, but I don’t think we can exclude it from consumerism either. Tourism is a major part of the economy in many places, and it isn’t voluntourism or “slow travel” that’s bringing in the big bucks. It’s too big a topic to delve in to here, but you’d be surprised what a city or area will do to bring in the tourists — often at the expense of its own citizens and the environment. Is the need for “newer, bigger and better” okay because… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

This article mentioned he ads for “Hilton Hawaiian Vacations”!

Gillian
Gillian
9 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Good point Elizabeth. For me travel is another example of how certain people in society try to force their values on you. I feel a lot of pressure from friends (and some family) to schedule a trip to Disney. I have young kids and the outside consensus is that by not bringing them to Disney I am denying my children a major life experience. Well, I don’t like rides, my son is autistic with sound sensitivities and I just don’t like the idea of paying big (or even little) bucks to stand in line. I try to explain that and… Read more »

Julie B.
Julie B.
9 years ago
Reply to  Gillian

My parents never took me or my siblings to any of the Disney parks as children, and we managed to become happy, productive members of society. 🙂 Resist that peer pressure!

Anne Cross
Anne Cross
9 years ago
Reply to  Julie B.

Ditto. I never wanted to go to Disney, and it was totally out of my parents’ mindset. And I’m fine. Good luck resisting the peer pressure. I find that as a teen/20-something it was easy to find outsider-y people, but it’s a challenge now to make friends who are likeminded about life, and I get a lot of pressure to conform to the Disney-tv-mall version of the world. Not interested in it, though.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago
Reply to  Gillian

Not to be another voice trying to push you to Disney, bc frankly, we didn’t care one way or the other whether we took our son there, but my son is also on the spectrum with sound sensitivities, and Disney was one of the best places I’ve ever taken him to. They offer autistic children (and their families) passes so that the kids don’t have to wait in the lines–which in my son’s case is a huge issue, and they also are incredibly well trained in helping families with this type of special need. I went from dreading the trip… Read more »

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Nancy L.

How great that must have been for your family and your son!

Makes me want to be part of creating a whole society where that is the case all the time in normal life. Now wouldn’t that be fine! How can we make that happen?

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Gillian

We got offered a free trip to Disney this year and convinced Grandma & Grandpa to do something else – my son has sensory integration issues and the thought of him (and me!) being judged on his behavior in a place like Disney…not a fun vacation.

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago

KILL YOUR TELEVISION.

My brother and family gave their TV away, and in the following several weeks he:
– built a square banjo out of a discarded wooden in-box, some long screw-eyes, and guitar strings
– brewed several gallons of mead
– learned a Beatles song on the guitar

I still have people at work who tell me how terribly I must miss TV. How I’ll get it back before long, and how I could watch it fairly cheaply if I tried.

It makes me laugh to see how urgently they care.

Ziggy
Ziggy
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

If you are constantly on the internet, then you don’t desire watching TV.

Luke
Luke
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Ah Betsy – but was the mead any good? 😉

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Luke

Ohohohohohohhhhh, you have NO idea.
🙂

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

I don’t have cable, either, but I watch plenty of TV. 🙂 I guess the benefit to watching TV online is that there is no constant stream of programming, you can just watch a show and then it’s over. Friends of mine with children have explained what a benefit this is, also. Their daughters can watch a cartoon that they like, and when it’s over, they go play outside. They don’t expect the programming to continue as they would if they watched it on Cable. Maybe it can be said that it’s easier to watch TV for intrinsic purposes if… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
9 years ago

Fabulous and interesting post. I never thought in these terms about the correlation of acquiring more and more and still feeling lost. It makes so much sense. I know a lot of people who feel that way. And the answer doesn’t lie in making others like or respect you, it lies knowing who you are, who you want to be, and what you can contribute in this world, and achieving that.

chett daniel
chett daniel
9 years ago

“I’m sure that meth wasn’t the only drug in this household. The big-screen TV was likely running non-stop, altering this poor family member’s brains by imparting the questionable wisdom that having nice things and living a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption is the answer to all of their dreams and woes.” Seriously, you’re comparing owning a t.v. to a meth addiction? So anyone that has ever purchased something that was advertised on the television is a T.V. tweeker? I agree that people are becoming more consumeristic and probably have been since the advent of the printing press. But to paint broad… Read more »

Geek
Geek
9 years ago
Reply to  chett daniel

Not to mention class snobbery and being just a tad bit judgemental.

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Geek

I do wish the article cited the actual news story and/or used a different example. Or used a personal example. It is definitely snobby to be condescending in a “you suck at life choices.” I’m guessing the mother doesn’t make a lot of money and therefore made the rational choice to buy a TV and cats for constant, cheap, affordable entertainment. Would you rather her house just had ten cats? Haha, I would be kinda condescending towards that… The article is interesting though because its clear that people who are content with what they have are more happy. Common sense,… Read more »

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago
Reply to  chett daniel

I’m with you-meth and TV are *not* on the same class of addiction. At. All. I bet he would still be a meth freak even without the TV

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  chett daniel

But it is still an addiction. You only think meth is worse because it is illegal, which is a logical assumption. If you measured seriousness by volume of people afflicted, then television is a much more serious problem. Twenty years ago, people thought constant smoking was no big deal because everyone was doing it. Also, as the # of meth addictions are relatively small, they only affect the abuser and his family and friends. Television is concerning because it causes the economy to be balanced on unsustainable spending and for its citizens to spend beyond their means, as supported by… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Alice D.

Meth is worse because it destroys the body and teeth, causes psychotic behavior and eventually death, makes people steal from their own mothers, causes babies to be born addicted to meth, pollutes neigborhoods, playgrounds, streams and groundwater supplies with chemical wastes discarded from the labs, causes fires when labs blow up, and at one point I am personally aware of, caused the release of a giant ammonia gas cloud when someone tried to steal ammonia from a tank on a local water company’s well site. Me watching some tv every day is not destroying my life. If I took meth… Read more »

jim
jim
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

Yeah there is no comparison.

There are over 1.2 million meth users in the US as of 2009.

1.6% of 10th graders used it.

In Nevada 2% of the Population were users in 2005.

Costs to society are $16-48 billion.

It killed over 100 people in Oregon alone just last year.

http://www.nida.nih.gov/drugpages/methamphetamine.html
http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2k6/statemeth/stateMeth.htm
http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/2009/RAND_RB9438.pdf
http://www.nida.nih.gov/drugpages/methamphetamine.html

Mike Holman
Mike Holman
9 years ago

I may not have a fancy degree in positive affirmations, but I’m calling BS on this one. You make your own choices – Sure advertising might have a bit of influence, but are you telling me that someone who overspends and watches tv can reduce their urge to spend by watching less tv? The reason that Americans (and some Canadians too) spend more than they used to is because of easier access to credit. If people in the 1950’s had credit cards and lines of credit available, you can be sure that magazines of that time would have advertized more… Read more »

MikeTheRed
MikeTheRed
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike Holman

I don’t think the article is saying it’s the fault of advertising that we are overextending ourselves, but that increased exposure to seeing these elevated lifestyles creates an increased subconscious desire to match them in our own lives. Yes, acting on that desire is choice, and resisting it requires a degree of personal discipline that is difficult for many. In the end, it does still boil down to personal responsibility, but making those choices gets increasingly difficult when the messaging all around you is to always SPEND SPEND SPEND. It’s like taking a recovering alcoholic and putting them in a… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago
Reply to  MikeTheRed

Unfortunately, this desire to spend beyond our means, common to most Americans, hurts the poor disproportionately.

People who earn $16,000 a year want to own a house, a car, and nice things just as much as everyone else.

And if you’re living close to the edge, bad decisions cost you so much more than people with a little more slack in their budget and safety nets–like health insurance and supportive family.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Pam, conversely the spread of cable TV in rural and poor areas of India has improved the lives of women. (http://www.riazhaq.com/2010/05/superfreakonomics-on-status-of-indian.html) The TV doesn’t just show people an example of a material setting to desire, but it also shows examples of behavior and many TV shows have moralistic messages where the bad guy loses and the good guy wins. Historically, TV shows have often reflected what the culture should aspire to be rather than what it is – such as when Star Trek had a black female communications officer in the 60s when such a work environment would have been… Read more »

Trina
Trina
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike Holman

“You make your own choices — Sure advertising might have a bit of influence, but are you telling me that someone who overspends and watches tv can reduce their urge to spend by watching less tv?”

Yes, that is exactly what he is telling you.

Do some reading in cognitive science, and you will see that we have a lot less control over our decisions, and are much more likely to be irrational than we think.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Trina

That has to do more with ideological lethargy and a lack of media literacy than with the TV itself. I watch TV shows via Hulu because commercials annoy me, but when there are commercials it’s amusing to watch them with a critical eye and make fun of them or engage in a contrarian rant, and say consciously and out loud “I am not buying what you’re selling.” One thing my wife and I always make fun of is that in TV and movies there will be this random person living in New York and they have apartments that would cost… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

El Nerdo, I watch Hulu too and when it asks whether a commercial is relevant, I say yes or no depending on how entertaining the commercial was. I would never do business with Sprint, but I love their commercials! Then if I get tired of seeing the same commercial over and over I will say it’s not relevant to me. 😀 Hopefully I am confounding the marketers.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Ha ha ha I do the same. My favorites were the Google Chrome ones, and I also watched those “mayhem” ads over and over even though I’m not switching car insurance providers.

As for the negatives– I’m particularly repelled by ads that promote junk/packaged/microwaveable foods. I won’t be replacing my shrimp and polenta with some disgusting hot pocket just cuz the tv tells me. Who would, really?

Tatiana
Tatiana
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I learned a great trick for reducing the time spent on ads in Hulu – tell it that any ad 20 seconds or less is “relevant”, and and any 30 seconds or longer is “not relevant”, regardless of content. You’ll see fewer long ads.

Wade
Wade
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike Holman

Sure, we all have choices and can make our decisions. But I think the point he is making is that watching TV desensitizes us and disengages us from the financial realities that constrain our lives.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Wade

But the TV can also desensitize you to the TV– basically you watch enough to realize it’s all BS. I reject the victimization discourse.

Sarabeth
Sarabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Unfortunately, that is not how most people actually experience the world, as a substantial body of research has shown. The predominant effect is of normalization of media messages, not becoming jaded and better able to see through them.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Well then I am disappointed in the cattle that is humanity according to that description.

No Debt MBA
No Debt MBA
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike Holman

The author is making the more subtle point not that tv dictates our choices, but that it pervasively projects an unrealistic level of lifestyle. Over time it gives you the idea that that your level of consumption can rise and still be “reasonable”.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  No Debt MBA

But how old does one have to be to realize that this is all fairy tales? Seriously, you’d think after 20 or 40 years of watching TV and comparing with real life one should start to get it?

xysea
xysea
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

As David has said repeatedly, people are fundamentally irrational. Super kudos if you’re not, but then you’d be outside the norm, I’m guessing. 🙂

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I am fundamentally irrational and ruled by emotion– but my fundamental emotions towards mainstream crap are anger, contempt, disgust, and derision. I think it’s the sane choice. I am not cattle. Ever watched “Alphaville”?

K.C.
K.C.
9 years ago
Reply to  No Debt MBA

Maybe it’s time to bring back Little House On The Prairie, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, The Waltons, Kung Fu and The Beverly Hillbillies. We love to watch these shows on DVD. No upscale lifestyles to emulate in these shows. The Beverly Hillbillies’ humor was most often at the expense of the rich folks.

Samantha
Samantha
9 years ago
Reply to  K.C.

Try Raising Hope and The Middle – both shows are about lower-middle or upper-lower class families (and both are very entertaining too!).

getagrip
getagrip
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike Holman

It isn’t just TV as many seem to be touting. It’s all media forms including the internet. People need to realize they’re being manipulated first, before they can address how much or how little they need to pare back on the exposure. A little education goes a long way. Once I got my son a toy based off TV commercial getting him so excited he really “couldn’t live without it”. After he played with it a while we had a good discussion on how it wasn’t as “fun” in real life as the commercial promised and that TV commercials were… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  getagrip

I agree, TV isn’t the only influence — it’s just one of many. I remember reading years ago that flashy proposal scenes in early movies helped cement the idea of a “proper” engagement involving a diamond ring. (Diamond marketing has been very sneaky over the years!) I read a bunch of marriage announcements my grandmother kept and they all detail material things like who was wearing what. Lifestyles are reflected in all forms of media. Still, I think the issue is far more complex than people realize. Consider how many religious writings deal with envy and greed. Whether you accept… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  getagrip

I’m weird enough that I’m pretty immune to TV & print advertising – it helps that i worked in the field for a long time, but it’s mostly just that I’m not really the mass target market for most things.

But blog recommendations/advertising hit me hard. It’s like I’m self-selecting the media most likely to influence me.

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

That’s interesting. Is is the more personal aspect, do you think? We feel that we connect better with bloggers than with advertisers; in some ways they’re friends.

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

It’s interesting that we don’t all respond to the same types of advertising. I laugh when I see ads (in print or online; I don’t have TV either) that tell me I have to own something to be cool. I know I’ll never be cool no matter what I buy. 🙂 But a straightforward ad for a utilitarian object that the sellers claim will work well and last a long time–I’m a real sucker. I always say to myself, “It must be the best. Why would they lie?” Yep, stupid. But that’s the way I’m wired. Believe me, I stay… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

Annemarie (sorry, i can’t reply to you directly!) I think it’s just that I belong to a really specific frugal/green/simple living subculture. So, I’m not real interested in a new car or cartoon-animated scrubbing bubbles, but I totally wanted a cargo bike and reading reviews of them made me want them more and more. Ditto things like JD’s trip to Africa, seeds for obscure snow-tolerant vegetables, reusable stainless-steel straws and non-vinyl shower curtains. A good in-person store targeted at folks like me has the same effect, but we don’t buy enough stuff to keep them in business – every time… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  getagrip

It’s not about “media”, it’s about a monolithic ideology that we as a country have embraced with little or no criticism or opposition. Go against it and you’re branded a hippie, a commie, a dreamer, a lunatic.

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Yes! I’m in my mid 30’s and my SO and I decided to give up cable TV to save $ and to ween ourselves and the kids off it. My. Parents. Freaked. And they ended up BUYING US A NEW TV AND PRE-PAYING for a year of cable! Now, when our H20 heater broke and I complained we had to take cold showers they were ‘oh well-got to learn to deal with it’
How funny is that?

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Wow. Your parents are bananas. Pobrecitos! My heart goes out to them.

I hope you sold the TV and cancelled the cable for a fat refund, yes? 😉

Don’t get me wrong, I bought a plasma last year, my wife and I loooooooove movies and some tv shows, but you gotta live the way you want, and if you don’t want a TV then sell the thing…

RGD
RGD
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Holman

They had credit in the 1950s. That was when credit cards were invented. Interestingly enough, Gen Z, born circa 1995-8 through circa 2010-6, watch little television, and it turns out that they’re in many ways far less consumerist than generations that came before them even when one adjusts for their young age; in fact, it turns out that they own fewer personal computers, tablets, and smart watches than the national average, have many fewer credit cards than others did at their age, carry smaller balances on those credit cards, and are more likely to pay them off in full at… Read more »

Andrea Muhrrteyn
Andrea Muhrrteyn
9 years ago

Excellent post!! Totally agree. Will share widely. I’ve never owned a television in my entire life. I was once offered one for free; and said ‘no thanks to mind slavery’. I own four pairs of shoes; and the last time I purchased any clothing, besides underwear or socks, when they have holes in them and can no longer be repaired, was about 3 or 4 years ago. I hate shopping; cannot stand it! I’ve never been bothered by judging myself by external values or people’s opinions; only by my own qualities of honesty and honour! While others consider me poor… Read more »

Ivan Walsh
Ivan Walsh
9 years ago

True wealth is having less wants not more possessions.

Epictetus said it first, not me.

Adam P
Adam P
9 years ago

Article summary: Don’t spend more than you earn. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. More “stuff” won’t make you happier. TV is bad. My take: Don’t spend more than you earn, unless you are buying a house, or going to school, then it’s fine to pile on debt several times your income. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, unless it’s a work wardrobe and you want to dress for the job you want not the job you have. Stuff won’t make you happier, unless stuff includes travel, which apparently will make you happier…or stuff that actually… Read more »

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago
Reply to  Adam P

Sometimes $ can buy happiness-I just adopted a shelter dog for $120. He makes me *very* happy

Tara
Tara
9 years ago
Reply to  Crystal

So true! I have two little dogs and they make me happy every day. 🙂

Holly
Holly
9 years ago

I grew up in a household like this. Every Saturday’s big event was to read the sales circulars and spend hours walking around Bradlee’s Department Store to see what was on sale.

Having kids really shut me down in that respect. I hated fighting with my kids to sit down and be quiet so I could shop. It has been liberating.

As for tv, I watch mostly PBS (no commercials) and obscure UHF stations which run commercials for Jeggings and slankets and other things I’d never want to buy!

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago
Reply to  Holly

Be aware that PBS has commercials during the children’s shows. Even if it’s “just” for juice, it’s a commercial. =)

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

That’s because ‘Merica doesn’t like paying taxes for culture, the arts, or anything for that matter, so PBS has to seek “corporate sponsorship” to make ends meet and import shows from taxpayer-supported BBC.

ali
ali
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

Of course it has a commercial. PBS programming is sponsored by — whoever it usually says so before or after the programming and not during. Also advertisers don’t pay the big bucks, but they still pay.

The whole revenue system is built on advertising. It’s about making sure the client gets what they pay for – which is people to watch the ads. Low rated but critically acclaimed shows get cancelled because no one is watching the advertising and advertisers don’t want to pay for that.

Barry
Barry
9 years ago

great article . Has anybody watched some of the movies and tv shows that are directed at kids lately.I feel that the majority of them are primers for Extrinsic Motivation.

Ken
Ken
9 years ago

Great point about television commercials and spending. Culture is always pressing us to spend, spend, spend. I also agree with your intrinsic motivation comments. Living within one’s means and learning to say ‘no’ can produce happiness. Contentment can be learned. GREAT POST!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Intrinsic motivation is represented by self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling.

Extrinsically-motivated people, on the other hand, focus on financial gain, their appearance, and social popularity. They generally seek acceptance by something or someone outside themselves.

Care to elaborate how “affiliation and community feeling” are not outside one’s self? Does that refer to an extended sense of self? Where’s the in/out boundary? (I know this idea of “in/out” seems obvious at first glance, but it really isn’t–neither is the idea of self for that matter.) Thanks.

Trina
Trina
9 years ago

David — love the post! Would you say that this is the same as “affluenza”?

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago

I have to agree 100% that expectations control my overall satisfaction – when I was okay with settling at my dead end job, I was happier in general. Now that I am trying to work my way out, it is harder and harder to show up and I’m grumpier.

I could see this applying to consumerism as well…I will try to stay happy with what I have (including my stupid car, lol) so I don’t try to fill in any voids with spending…

Shari
Shari
9 years ago

Speaking of peer pressure to consume: lately with all of the articles about the recession in the news, I almost feel like the message is that the economy would recover if people would just SPEND, SPEND, SPEND. It’s like they’re trying to guilt us into spending money. I read one article that basically blames the slow recovery on people “hoarding” their money and not spending.
Luckily I have no money so can’t be guilted into spending it!

jlg3rd
jlg3rd
9 years ago

Great post, I have not had a TV for over a year now and don’t miss the stupid mindless thing at all. This article hits homw about what is happening to and in America. Our youth are growing up brainless and lots of adults are living vicarioulsy through tv shows that are far fetched! You could also par this post with what’s happening in America regarding the fast food industry……it’s killing us!

Johan
Johan
9 years ago

Bitcoins sounds interesting, anyone know how it works, i find a video on http://bitcoinlistings.com/2011/06/bitcoins-how-it-works/ but i dont understand…anyone tried it?

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

At first I thought this was a typical “stuff is bad/experiences are good” post, but on second reading, I really do think that the intrinsically motivated versus extrensically motivated are different. I can buy new clothes because everyone else is, or because I actually take joy and delight in them. I can take a vacation because that’s what everyone else does, or because it’s what *I* truly want to do. This is a more useful concept to me than the old “stuff vs. experiences.” As a side note – we got rid of our TV for 3 years – not… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

I wonder if intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are related to how introvert/extrovert a person is. I’m turning a bit more introvert as I get older and I care a lot less about spending money. We went without TV for quite a few years and I think TV commercials do not really affect my buying decisions anymore.
Of course, I would like to have nice houses like what I saw on Modern Family. 🙂

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago
Reply to  retirebyforty

I’ve read a bit about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and I’ve never seen a relationship to introversion or extroversion.

Introversion and extroversion refer more to whether spending time with people or alone is more likely to replenish your reserves.

As an extrovert, I need to be around people or I’ll get too gloomy and tired. Introverts need to refresh themselves with time alone.

Alicia
Alicia
9 years ago

These articles about the perils of advertising always seem to focus on TV. Like if I turn off the TV I’ll live a life free from ads? Sorry, no.

How is TV any worse than the internet? On the web, you have lots of exposure to TONS of unnecessary stuff and luxury goods AND the ability to buy them instantly.

Magazines are also pretty terrible–at least the few women’s magazines that I’ve looked at in waiting rooms. They’re mostly ads and articles about how to “get this look.”

Luke
Luke
9 years ago
Reply to  Alicia

Alicia, I find that the relationship between advertisements and actual content is more clearly defined on the internet. For example, affiliate links and adverts for crap I don’t want to buy will typically sit at the top or the right hand side of the page when I’m reading GRS 🙂 When we browse online (however aimless our wanderings might be), we make choice after choice what to engage with. I find it quite easy to disregard adverts. Ad blockers are also available for some browsers, which are nice to have. When watching television, it’s my experience that people are involved… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Alicia

The media is terrible, but PEOPLE ARE THE WORST. Avoid them, and you’re clear of most problems.

Margarite
Margarite
9 years ago

Can you provide links or references to the studies mentioned in this article? When and where were these studies published?

Another Kate
Another Kate
9 years ago
Reply to  Margarite

Yes, and I’d like to know if the average American woman buys more than 52 items of new clothing a year for HERSELF or 52 items of new clothing overall. My MIL, for example, who shops for fun, definitely buys more than 52 items of new clothing a year, but I doubt she buys that many for herself. She buys a lot for others, particularly her grandchild. I hate to shop and certainly buy fewer than 52 items of new (or used) clothing for myself each year, but with a growing kid and gifts for others on holidays, I may… Read more »

RC
RC
9 years ago

Love this post!

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

Well, we enjoy TV in our house and I make no apologies. I’m not convinced by the whole “TV made me run up my credit card” line. When my kids are really yearning for the latest and greatest hot new video/audio gadget, it’s because they’ve already enjoyed it thanks to their friends. But really, there just aren’t that many things my kids want. My little boys play with sticks, paper towel holders, and legos while the bigger kids play sports and video games. Last Christmas, there were a couple of video games two of my boys wanted but the other… Read more »

akajb
akajb
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

“the TV is probably on (although no one may be watching)”

I don’t understand this, but I know it’s common in lots of houses. I grew up in a house where the tv was rarely on, and I, personally, didn’t have any interest in it. I’d rather read a book. But that’s just my personality – one of my siblings loves having the tv on.

If no one’s watching it, what is the point of having it on, besides now having to pay for the extra energy it uses?

Penny Pincher
Penny Pincher
9 years ago

I do not watch TV. I can’t stand it, because it’s just a cesspool of crapulence with little more than cardboard characters prancing around, exhorting you to be selfish and dangling shiny things in front of you. Unfortunately, we will soon be bombarded by TV political ads, and the ones this year are more slickly produced than ever. Most people who get all their news from TV will base their voting decisions on some emotion-jerking TV ad rather than do any analysis of their own. Even if you think you are unaffected by these ads, studies show that people are,… Read more »

Adam
Adam
9 years ago

Amen. As of this morning the national debt was $14.4 trillion, and growing. Perhaps we should put our collective brain power into finding a workable solution to this huge problem, without sacking our children, and grandchildren. It’s all going to come crashing down, unless we get our act together and solve it.

almost there
almost there
9 years ago
Reply to  Adam

Subscribe to lew rockwell dot com and read advocates that have ways to turn the debt around.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

I read this article and thought about the TV shows I like to watch and the types of consumer things I spend the most money on, and there really is a connection!

Very insightful! However, I wonder whether it is the tv shows I watch that drive preferred purchases, or whether it is the other way around and people just prefer to watch shows and movies that reflect or depict their pre-existing interests, be they fashion, technology or Victorian revival.

Luke
Luke
9 years ago

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this posting has brought some very defensive commentators out of the woodwork, which really goes to show the pervasive power of consumerism and the extent to which people need confirmation bias that their lifestyles (which might feature shopping as a major facet) are valid. I can’t believe someone who has actually done serious research on a topic and has an academic understanding of psychology is being ‘called’ by people for the simple reason that his research doesn’t sit with their world view! Great piece, David, I suspect the responses will be polarised between those who can take on… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Luke

Luke, I think some commentators may be so defensive because this kind of post also brings out so many people who imply or state that they are superior to others and their life choice is the best choice because they never watch any television. They may feel that way, and they may be right, but it’s sort of rude to announce it to others and doesn’t sway anyone but rather puts people off. It’s sort of like vegans who are holier than thou and turn people off of veganism by acting this way.

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

I have known hundreds of vegans/vegetarians for years, and I have never actually observed any of them preaching about their dietary choices. I think the “preachy vegetarian” is an urban legend derived from people’s projection of their own defensive reactions onto the poor vegetarians. But yeah. I believe that not watching TV actually IS a better lifestyle choice. Everything is NOT relative. There ARE choices that are better than others, and I’m willing to say so! Don’t like this idea? Feel free to ignore it. It’s not like I want to force anyone to do anything. But I am willing… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Wow, you know a lot of people!

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Been around for decades!

Alice D.
Alice D.
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

I only agree that excessive TV watching is bad (more than 4 hours per day). Following a couple shows is a personal decision on how to allocate your entertainment hobbies. Sometimes I watch TV. Sometimes I read this blog. Sometimes I wander out in the real world and have a cup of coffee. Variety is fun for me. I don’t have a TV (because I watch on the internet) but I could care less if others do. Caring excessively about how others live (“you shouldn’t have a TV at ALL”) annoys me. Have a logical discussion as to the dangers… Read more »

BD
BD
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Of course you wouldn’t hear them preach. Sounds like you’re hanging out in a tiny little group of sheeple who all think alike. Why would they preach to the choir?

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Weird, I have know hundreds of preachy vegans. We must live in different towns.

Savage
Savage
9 years ago
Reply to  Luke

Luke, you are absolutely right. This quote comes to my mind: “There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.” Leonardo da Vinci I have been working in the media for 10 years so I know how manipulative television is. All I can say is I agree wholeheartedly with the author of this article. I watch very little television myself even though it pays my bills. I honestly want to move into a different career because I have qualms about making a living off something I see as… Read more »

Corinne
Corinne
9 years ago

Please stop comparing consumerism to drug and alcohol addiction. It is irresponsible journalism.

Sky Cottage
Sky Cottage
9 years ago

This article reminded me of the book Affluenza. A book well worth reading.

As Your Money or Your Life says…. ‘Let us be citizens instead of consumers.”

After 25 years together, my wife and I are starting to get a handle on these weighty
issues, so don’t expect instant results!

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

On my mother’s recent visit to Portland, she decided to buy me a TV and DVD player as a surprise gift. I guess I can no longer hold my nose up and say with pride “I don’t have a TV” – oops. In this day and age, I feel like I have to justify having a material object like a TV by saying that I don’t plan on getting cable, or I only watch maybe one movie a week. It seems like having less is the new black. Its great for a lot of reasons, but you feel you have… Read more »

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Kate

A good form of snobbery, much needed as a tiny minority voice in the overwhelming onslaught of snobbery based on materialism.

(Also, is it really snobbery if anyone can choose to participate, regardless of wealth?)

Some things really ARE better than others. Mindless consumerism is not one of them.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Watching TV isn’t necessarily the same thing as mindless consumerism.

xysea
xysea
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

Yes, however, the point of the article as written is to say that for a certain segment of people (maybe even a growing segment), that mindless TV viewing and excess consumerism are linked.

Perhaps some can watch endless TV and wind up unaffected, but certainly we’re seeing some of the things in David’s article are borne out to be true.

I don’t mind examining my own life. If the shoe fits, I’ll wear it, and if it doesn’t I’m not too worried about it. It certainly doesn’t negate the research presented in this article, either way.

Betsy
Betsy
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

Right. I was responding to Kate’s last paragraph, regarding snobbery re: purchasing.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago
Reply to  Betsy

Simply owning, purchasing or having an object gifted to you isn’t “mindless consumerism”. I think too many people make snap judgements based on what they can see that another person has rather than taking time to get to know the person behind the wardrobe or the TV on their wall.

Jacq
Jacq
9 years ago

We can’t avoid the research even though we may be anomalies. I haven’t really ever been a TV watcher, but the one or two times a year I’d tune into Sex and the City, I did feel an urge to drink Cosmos and wear nicer shoes. And date Mr. Big – or maybe the other guy with the long hair. Article on one of Schor’s books: http://www.time.com/time/community/transcripts/chattr052098.html “Two major developments have caused the new consumerism. The first is the growing importance of television, which shows programs nearly all of whose characters are upper middle class or wealthy. In my research… Read more »

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

Jacq’s nailed it.TV’s probably the easiest, largest, most available broadcaster of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” but it’s surely not alone. Emulation of the wealthy is definitely a big thing in this country and my guess is, this isn’t necessarily brand new but it’s more widespread– TV, internet (hello Facebook), magazines, billboards, etc. It’s a subtle, natural pull to want to fit in. That’s what social creatures just do. And there’s nothing wrong with fitting in– there’s just something wrong with damaging yourself to fit in.

Jacq
Jacq
9 years ago

MSM, you don’t even have to do anything besides just go to work to get that wanting feeling. See the cars that you’d kind of like to have on your commute – hear people talk about the places they went that weekend or what fun they had doing ____. You don’t bother saying that you did anything at all if you just stayed home reading a library book and going for a little hike.

That becomes:

“What did YOU do this weekend?”

“Nothing exciting.”

Jane
Jane
9 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

I agree with these comments more than I agree with the article. I don’t think it’s television per se that is the problem, but rather the current focus on the rich and famous. This is particularly egregious in children’s and teen programming. Heck, look at the premise of Hannah Montana. It’s about a rich and famous girl and her life. And look at all the reality programming which focuses on rich people and their lives. THIS is the problem. I grew up watching the Brady Bunch (re-runs) when I was twelve. Imagine how much different it is for a girl… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  Jane

This might give you an idea 🙂

http://front.moveon.org/kate-winslet-i-dont-look-like-that-and-i-dont-desire-to-look-like-that/#.Te-PFAdD50z;facebook

I like the point that “Advertising teaches us what’s normal” It’s a scary thought.

Jane
Jane
9 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

That’s all well and good for Kate Winslet to say, but she has gotten quite a bit skinnier over the years. In fact, I’d say she’s now Hollywood thin, which is a fact my husband laments. He liked her curvy :).

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago

I can think of some people who are genuinely enriched by their TV “stories” — real life is hard or dismal, the situation seems impossible to change, and the TV lets them escape for a while.

But I take David’s point. And am curious about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Does reading GRS count as extrinsic motivation, since you’re relying on other people’s experiences and opinions? Or is it intrinsic because you’ve made a decision to spend less(which GRS readers support) and you’re looking for help on the way?

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Annemarie

Annemarie, I think it depends. If you let people who insist that their lifestyle is superior push you into believing that you need to emulate them or else you are a mindless consumer, that would be extrinsic motivation. If you, on the other hand, take or leave the advice you read, based on what is important to you, then the motivation is intrinsic.

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

Huh. Thank you.

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

I LOVE THIS ARTICLE! I just heard a nice public Bible discourse this weekend and one of the talks was titled “Have you learned ‘the secret’?” based on Philippians 4:11,12. The secret is contentment. Many know what contentment is but there is a difference between knowing and applying that knowledge. Not that I need facts like the one presented here to help me realize that stuff/trips don’t make me happy but I thought this article presented the thought in a really nice way. We have a tv but to save money about 2 years ago we got rid of the… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

Thanks a lot, now I want cheez-its! lol

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
9 years ago

Great post, very thought provoking. I feel like I am very intrinsically motivated. I don’t wear make-up, hardly ever buy clothes, don’t shop recreationally and am raising my sons to be aware of consumer issues and find their self-worth from within. However, I love TV. We only watch Netflix, so there are no commercials, and we can be deliberate about our programming. My teenagers can watch anime, SNL and movies. I watch Buffy, The Tudors, documentaries and sappy romantic stuff. This does not mean that I am a slave to Madison Avenue, (unless you count “Mad Men,” then yes, I… Read more »

David M. Carter
David M. Carter
9 years ago

I very much appreciate that many of you have expressed interest and gratitude about my guest piece. This topic is very complex. Indeed, many people (psychologists, sociologists, consumer behaviorists, and others) are working all day every day around the world investigating the psychology of consumerism. Let me just point out a short list of scientifically supported “facts” that may add something to the conversations: 1) People are fundamentally irrational. This is in spite of the fact that they believe otherwise. This is one of the reasons why so many people abuse credit. 2) People are much more affected by social… Read more »

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
9 years ago

Thanks for sharing this information. Psychology has more to do with financial success than financial knowledge. However philosophers have intuitively “known” for thousands of years what behavioral studies are “proving” today. “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.” ~ Epicurus (341 BC — 270 BC) “Contentment is natural wealth, luxury is artificial poverty.” ~ Socrates (469 – 399 BC) “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~ Lau Tzu (Circa 500… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

I disagree that people are fundamentally irrational. Every time I have heard someone state that it is irrational for Group X to do Y, it’s usually because they aren’t a member of Group X, and they just assume that because it would be irrational for themselves to do Y, that it is irrational for Group X to do Y. Here are a couple of examples: Is it irrational for drug dealers to put gold and diamonds in their teeth and to drive cars that cost more than their lodgings? It would be irrational for you to do so. But you… Read more »

Janice
Janice
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

Just because you can understand someone’s behavior doesn’t make the behavior rational. I could understand intellectually a serial killer’s behavior who was tortured and beaten as a child, but it doesn’t make him/her less of a psychopath or his/her crimes less heinous. It’s not our OPINIONS of the behavior that determine rationality or irrationality but the scientific truth of it. (Assuming you believe in the science). See that’s part of the problem. We think that facts are just inconvenient truths that we can rationalize away with our opinions and justify irrational (or worse) behavior. Just try telling someone they’re being… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  Janice

Janice, of course a serial killer’s behavior is irrational. Most people’s behavior, however, is rational. It’s not my opinion that it’s rational for someone with untaxed income to make longterm investments with the ultimate security by having gold and diamonds implanted in their mouth. It is a rational thing to do. What is opinion is when you judge someone else’s behavior as irrational when you don’t know anything about their situation or their life. Another example: It’s often said that women don’t make as much as men because they don’t have the gumption to ask for raises and promotions the… Read more »

xysea1971
xysea1971
9 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay

Yes, it is fundamentally irrational to play the lottery for most of the people who play it. They are people who, in most respects, can ill afford the money they are spending and their chances of winning are so minute as to be ridiculous. They’d be better off putting that $ in a savings account: Guaranteed pay off, but it probably won’t be in the millions. But you have rationalized this as the American way; anything to get rich quickly is a dream come true, strongly desirable and a-okay. That’s the influence of consumerism on your psyche. But there are… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago
Reply to  xysea1971

I didn’t say that this is the American Way, I just said that spending $100 per year is not a very expensive cost for playing a game. It also supports the local schools, so the money is not wasted. You’re trying to conflate what I stated with people who may be extremely poor and can’t even afford to spend $100 per year or who perhaps spend $100 per month.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Alright mang but you haven’t yet clarified how “affiliation” is “intrinsic”. (See post #…17 i think). (@ David) Maybe you know the subject in depth but I think your post glosses over those definitions leaving some of us in an intellectual limbo. Doesn’t “affiliation” require “the approval of others” for example? I think there’s more to it than the simple in/out dichotomy. WIth humans being social animals, belonging is a matter of survival– and perhaps those who want the approval of others are those who are in the process of switching groups (the socially mobile, etc). Stand in the place… Read more »

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

Everyone is trying to sell us something and it is getting worse. The Internet is targeting my Google choices and other things they find out about me for products and services. It is a good thing I am not convinced to buy. I guess I am living with my own set of values.

Jennel
Jennel
9 years ago

Fantastic guest post. Very thought-provoking and intelligent. As a lifelong student of media and admirer of advertising I completely see the destructive power in it. However, until I started tracking my own consumer spending did that power hit home.

Thank you for writing this and giving me a quick go-to for those times when I really think I need some new shoes.

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun
9 years ago

I love the overall idea of this article… the instrinsic vs extrensic motivation in particular got me thinking! (Sadly, I think I have a lot of extrinsic motivation) My only issue is that the article and comments seem to blame a lot on TV. Yes, TV is a huge culprit, but getting rid of your TV doesn’t fix the situation. I can’t think of a single book I’ve read recently where the main character(s) wasn’t well-off. Jane Austen, the Millenium series, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, etc etc. And when main characters are poor, their life is shown as depressing. Even… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
9 years ago

Just read a Vanity Fair article about Prince Jefri of Brunei, who spent literally billions of dollars in 10 years, to the extent that the Sultan cut him off, sued, and had injunctions against selling any of the properties/assets under his name. When you read the article and the mind numbingly stupid things he spend this money on (8 million alone on jeweled pornographic watches) and the way people around him described him as having an hungry or empty look behind his eyes, it almost seems like a compulsion he didn’t even derive much satisfaction from.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  partgypsy

Wow, I’ve never read Vanity Fair, but I’d pick one up just to read the tale of this human atrocity. Goes into my “next action/errands/library” list. Thanks for that.

Danielle
Danielle
9 years ago

Hey J.D., I read your site in Google Reader, and it looks like the Facebook send “this article” text is appearing in the middle of your posts. It looks weird, and has happened the last few posts. Just wanted to let you know!

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

This is such a fascinating idea, the extrinsic verses intrinsic and especially El Nerdo’s thoughts about how you can tell the difference between where one ends and another begins. Here is another example where extrinsic and intrinsic are mixed up, involving TV: If my friend is really into a certain TV show, I will watch it because they watch it (extrinsic value). But I do this for the purpose of becoming closer to my friend by having more to discuss and reflect on with them (intrinsic value). Likewise I will do this with family, even if it’s a show I… Read more »

jennypenny
jennypenny
9 years ago

I think the American dream and supposedly classless system contributes to this. We believe strongly in this country that anyone can achieve greatness (financial and otherwise). Many times people buy the things that go with financial success before they actually achieve that success. It’s a way of attaining the dream by having the possessions associated with the American Dream, even if they don’t have the financial success to back that up.

But I completely disagree with the idea that we’re manipulated to the point that we can’t just say no. People should feel empowered, not believe in a victim mentality.

ali
ali
9 years ago

So you see a family on the news with deep seated problems and without knowing anything about the family go right to they have 50 inch tv, so it must be on nonstop and that altered their brains. That doesn’t seem very scientific. Also yes tv is filled with advertising but that’s the point. It’s all about getting people in front of the advertisers. Ultimately television isn’t about selling advertiser to consumers, it’s about selling consumers to advertisers. In show product placement? That pre dates tv to radio. The biggest example is soap operas. Proctor and Gamble owned and produced… Read more »

chiefcaba
chiefcaba
9 years ago

I’m not in a position to argue about the science behind this post but the tone of the discourse was extremely off-putting to me. The sensationalism of the article doesn’t seem much better than some of the TV I watch. Yes, I watch TV.

Anti-consumerism, blame everyone but ourselves for our issues posts are fine, but I really prefer when they are balanced out by Tyler comments and at least some concept that we actually control our lives and happiness.

Hannah
Hannah
9 years ago

I understand getting rid of cable, but the BEST decision of my life? GETTING OFF FACEBOOK. Last year I took a whole bunch of trips of course because I love to travel, but also a deep-rooted realization that I wanted to post my pictures on Facebook to show off. I see it all the time via my boyfriend’s Facebook, with status updates liked “I booked a trip to New York”, “Going to Seattle for Memorial Day”. “Look at this wonderful food from restaurant X” “Me sporting my new sunglasses”. It’s all social pressure. I’m off Facebook and it’s saved me… Read more »

khadijah
khadijah
9 years ago
Reply to  Hannah

But that’s not facebook’s fault (or social networking). Are you the kind of person who needs to keep up with the Joneses? Do you need to one-up your own friends? Are your friends like that? Instead of dumping facebook, why not just dump those friends who like to show off? I have friends who post travel pics and statuses like that all the time. I don’t think they’re bragging (much lol). No.. its not a competition. I love browsing through photos of places I’ve never been. If they saw something I would like, they would tag it, because its something… Read more »

Hannah
Hannah
9 years ago
Reply to  khadijah

“I understand people leaving facebook for certain concerns (distraction, productivity, privacy etc) but ive never heard of this one.” If you’re trying to get out of debt then I think Facebook is a debt elimination “distraction” and it limits debt elimination “productivity”. Like what most people say, it’s underlying influences that get you spending. Don’t get me wrong I love Facebook for what it is and I don’t think people are showing off, more like excited to share. I just see patterns in posts. A friend will go to New York and then a few months later someone else has… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Hannah

I totally agree about Facebook, btw. It’s got to hit you, because it’s people you actually know, and it’s worse than seeing their stuff in person, because most people only share the good stuff on Facebook and only talk about stuff when it’s new. If I was at your house and noticed you had something I was thinking of buying and said, hey, how do you like that, does it work, was it expensive? You would tell me pretty straight. Or most people would. If I only know you have one from Facebook, all I’d see was how excited you… Read more »

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago

I just wanted to chime in and say: JD I really like these meaty posts. They’re really interesting reads. This reminds me a lot of the book Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes.

C.M.C.
C.M.C.
9 years ago

I agree with a lot of the points made in this post. However, I truly believe it’s all about discretion and moderation. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with planning and budgeting for a lavish vacation or luxury item… however it has to be planned for and a seldom occurance. I think the danger lies in becoming insatiable. If you rely on these items to bring you happiness and these items only, there is a problem. I am growing tired of the attitude that media is to blame for people’s irresponsibility when it comes to finances. I don’t… Read more »

khadijah
khadijah
9 years ago

This is one of the best and most well written article I have seen in GRS in a long time. It is well researched and full of facts and findings. I like reading reader’s anecdotes, and expert’s “advice”/opinion… but people need to get smacked in the head with real numbers and real research and sober up. I always notice the skewed normalization of consumerism in the US, whenever I step outside of the country. Even when I go to European countries like Germany, Spain and France… people there are more sober in their consumption, they hardly waste. If you meet… Read more »

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