Jessica Seigel
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Health & Science

Materialism -- Lots of Stuff

Possessed: The bumper sticker says, 'He who dies with the most toys wins.' Don't bet on it.

The Chicago Tribune
Tempo section

By Jessica Seigel
Tribune Staff Writer


HE $1,575 Le Corbusier-style chair was an absolute must. The 29-year-old advertising copywriter also had to have the Armani eyeglasses, the Cartier watch and the Lichtenstein print.

Behind his back, friends say he brags about his designer purchases and call him a materialist. He denies it.

"Just because I've made the choice to acquire nice things says nothing about me personally. Its really based on need, he says. I buy the best because I can afford it. It's not a character issue. I think it's human nature."

Funny monkey

Can human nature explain why one person "needs" a Le Corbusier chair while others are content to sit on Grandma's hand-me-downs? Social scientists are beginning to study those kinds of needs as they investigate the psychology of materialism.

These experts say the current recession-induced hand-wringing has only highlighted the need to understand the clutch of materialism, which they define as the tendency to value things rather than people.

America is indeed more thing-oriented than other Western nations: Statistics show that we spend three to four times as many hours a week shopping as our European counterparts, according to Juliet Schor, author of "The Overworked American." As a major leisure activity, shopping has taken on the characteristics of a sport in America.

Over-priced bag

"Conventional social scientific theory doesn't explain why we care so much about objects," said Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who heads the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. "Traditional theory focuses on ideas of greed, vanity and status. None of that allows you to explain the absolute grip that possessions have on our lives."

The new research mixes psychology, marketing and consumer behavior to explore the relationship people have with their things. More traditional psychology, in contrast, focuses on how people relate to other people.

"When I first proposed studying the psychology of possessions, a professor told me that wasn't worth a paper in an undergraduate seminar," said Floyd Rudmin, an assistant professor of social psychology at Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario. Rudmin edited a special 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, based in Corte Madera, Calif., devoted solely to possessions, ownership and property.

"Many psychologists still don't recognize it as a topic. But possessions and property dominate much of our life," he said. "We don't even realize we're restricted by property norms. When I walk down the hallway of my apartment building and pass all the doors with all the locks, I don't feel imposed upon. It's accepted."

Rudmin is one of several professors organizing the first international conference on materialism to be held at his university this summer. About 40 to 60 specialists in psychology, consumer behavior, philosophy, sociology, economics, communications and literature are expected from as far away as New Zealand.

Their scientific methods may be new, but their message is old: Money doesn't buy happiness.

"High materialists are not only dissatisfied with their possessions and income, but also less satisfied with their family relationships and the amount of fun they have," said Marsha Richins, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "They certainly are less happy with all aspects of their lives."

A matter of expectations

Richins has devised a materialism test whose results, to be published next winter in the Journal of Consumer Research, show that people who most emphasize the role of their possessions in their lives are not as happy as others.

After interviews with 834 people in the Northeast and West, she compared the subjects who scored highest in materialism with those who scored lowest. (She did not try to determine how materialistic Americans are as a group.)

In the questionnaire, people who strongly agreed with statements such as "I spend a lot of time thinking about things I'd like to have" or "I enjoy something a little more if it's expensive" tended to score high on the materialism scale.

Richins found that high- and low-scoring materialists are equally likely to report feeling thrilled by a new purchase. The difference is in the expectations.

"People high in materialism process information a little differently," Richins said. "They think if they buy a new thing they'll be happier, that it will make their lives marvelous. People who are low in materialism have maybe learned from their experiences that buying new, exciting things didn't really change their life that much."

High materialists report that after a purchase they sometimes feel angry or frustrated, though they may not understand why. "If they never had such high expectations, they wouldn't be disappointed," Richins said.

The differences between high and low materialists are measurable in dollars and cents, according to Richins. Asked what income they would need to live comfortably, high materialists said they would need an average of $65,974, compared with $44,761 for low materialists.

It's not that we like our things but why we like them that distinguishes healthy from unhealthy materialism, according to a pioneering study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.

The study, which forms the basis of his 1981 book "The Meaning of Things," laid a groundwork for research that others are still filling in.

In interviews with 315 Chicagoans from 82 families, Csikszentmihalyi asked what objects in the home they cherished most. He then compared the five families who described themselves as the happiest with the five who were most dissatisfied.

As their most cherished objects, adult members of the happiest families picked things that reminded them of other people and good times they'd had together. They mentioned a memento (such as an old toy) from their childhood 30 percent of the time; the other group cited such objects only 6 percent of the time. In explaining why they liked something, happy family members often described the times their family had spent on a favorite couch, rather than its style or color.

"What surprised me most was the intensity of family relationships embedded in the things in the home," Csikszentmihalyi said. "The things you find in average homes look like anything you can order from a catalog. They look anonymous. But when you talk to people, you find out these objects do refer closely to relationships."

By contrast, members of unhappy families tended to look at their possessions as having meaning to themselves alone - their TV, their exercise equipment, their camera. "This kind of person doesn't see the objects as a link to other people but something that is needed to enhance the self, which is endlessly needing to stand out from others," he said.

Viewing possessions as status symbols or extensions of the self is an old concept. The first metals, for example, were forged to make jewelry, not weapons. Based on such information, specialists have long debated whether self-aggrandizement is a human instinct akin to pecking orders in the animal world or a cultural construct peculiar to our society.

The objects we choose speak volumes about us, whether we like it or not, according to research by W. Jeffrey Burroughs, an associate professor of psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina.

In a series of experiments with college students, Burroughs and two colleagues showed that with minimal information about a person's things, test subjects could make accurate judgments about that person and his personality.

In one experiment, photographs were taken of 20 women students in the outfit they felt best expressed them. They were also asked to describe their own personality using a given scale. After the hair and face were blacked out, the pictures were shown to a group of 80 students.

From just the photo, the students were able to accurately judge whether each woman had described herself as optimistic or pessimistic, happy or sad, efficient or wasteful, and disciplined or impulsive.

"People don't keep their identities inside them," Burroughs said. "Identities are defined and projected through clothing, food, interior design, automobiles."

Does that mean clothes make the man? Almost.

"I would say clothes project the person," Burroughs said.

Possessions as clues

People can project through their clothes, and other possessions, because the symbolism of these objects is widely understood in our culture, often unconsciously. That's why clothing cues of foreigners or even of a subculture within the U.S. may be indecipherable to outsiders.

In his work with 16-year-old students, McCracken of the Royal Ontario Museum has mapped 15 basic kinds of cliques in Toronto high schools. Each group is defined by clothing, possessions and musical taste.

For example, the self-described "B-Boys" listen to rap and wear their hats sideways and their overalls with one strap down. "Rockers" wear high-top sneakers, tight jeans and T-shirts inscribed with names of heavy-metal bands. "Hippies" wear Birkenstock shoes and tie-dyed clothes.

There's a paradox in the teenage "hippies." To belong to the group, they must wear very specific clothing, which can be expensive, though they say they are adamantly anti-materialist.

"We're materialist even when we're anti-materialist," McCracken noted.

The identity projected from clothing or other objects isn't just meant to impress other people. In our culture, individuals buy things to enhance their own image of themselves. Certain purchases, like a car in high school and a house in adulthood, have even become rites of passage to the next stage of life. But as we age, we grow less materialistic, becoming more attached to things of sentimental, not status, value.

Earlier virtues

The sense of self, so often defined by possessions in our culture, has not always been so tenuous. In past centuries, moral qualities such as self-control, generosity and good manners were admired.

"There are lots of cultures (past and present) in which wanting things is seen as bad," according to Chandra Mukerji, professor of communication at the University of California at San Diego and author of "From Graven Images," a history of materialism.

In feudal society of the Middle Ages, objects did not hold a central position as status symbols because social standing was determined by birth and Christian ideology. Extra wealth was funneled into community projects.

With the end of feudalism, the new class of merchants began to compete with the nobility, using its wealth and possessions to do so. Its desire for status created the "need" to consume.

This need continues, even though we've reached the end of the excessive '80s and are now in the recessionary '90s. As a result, we are in a state of flux.

"Everything has ground to a halt," McCracken said. "We know the 1980s are over. We know the yuppies are over, and we're waiting for the world to begin again. We're essentially waiting for a new set of objects to go with the new set of ideas."


The $20,000 question

Here's how they would spend it, from a study by associate professor Marsha Richins of the University of Massachusetts.

High materialist

Savings or investments $7,413

Pay off debts $5,281

Buy things I want or need $3,445

Travel $2,090

Other $1,220

Give or lend to friends or relatives $1,089

Give to church or charity $733

Low materialist

Savings or investments $7,471

Pay off debts $3,271

Travel $3,015

Give or lend to friends or relatives $2,631

Give to church or charity $1,782

Other $1,355

Buy things I want or need $1,106

Note: Figures are averages

Chicago Tribune; Source: Journal of Consumer Reseach, to be published December 1992 by the University of Chicago Press.

March 29, 1992, Sunday, FINAL EDITION