The psychology of consumerism

This article was written by 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.

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