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The problem with materialistic values

Most of the world’s population is growing up in winner-take-all economies, where the main goal of individuals is to get whatever they can for themselves: to each according to his greed.  Within this economic landscape, selfishness and materialism are no longer being seen as moral problems, but as cardinal goals in life. Richard M. Ryan

We live in a society where television, consumerism and celebrity culture play a central role in people’s lives and research suggests that we are paying a huge price for this in terms of well-being. The restrictions on well-being are felt at the individual, the social and at the environmental level as such materialism has led to a huge rise in consumption and use of the earth’s finite resources. Never before has materialism loomed so large in people’s lives. The values it transmits tell us that the route to lasting happiness and well-being is through more material goods, popularity or the right type of appearance. Yet, this prescription is seriously flawed. The research shows that after a certain point, not far above poverty, people no longer reap any further benefit from material wealth and contrary to what modern consumer culture tells us, recent research shows us that holding materialistic values undermines the good life and may actually cause difficulties adjusting to, and participating usefully, in life.

As consumer culture has become more dominant the aspirations of materialism have been adopted and pursued by society at large. Research shows that strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive undermining of people’s well-being, from low life satisfaction and happiness, to depression and anxiety, to physical problems such as headaches, and to personality disorders, narcissism, and antisocial behavior. In other words, materialistic values do not contribute to a flourishing life.

The problem
When we look at contemporary consumer culture it is clear that people are constantly bombarded with messages that needs can be satisfied by having the right products. Feel unsafe on the road or in your home? Buy the right tyre or lock. Worried that you will die young? Take a certain brand of vitamin pills. Consumer societies also provide many role models suggesting that a high quality of life (i.e. the satisfaction of our basic human needs) occurs only when we have successfully attained material goals. In the past people often tried to emulate saints. Now people are expected to model ourselves on people who are wealthy, good looking and famous.

However, as we shall see more fully below, extrinsic things such as money are very poor at satisfying people’s needs and paradoxically undermine psychological well-being. Fulfilling psychological needs are necessary for survival, growth and optimal functioning; when these needs are met people thrive and flourish. When they are not they feel at best empty and unfulfilled and at worse mentally ill.

Professor Tim Kasser on materialism

Tim Kasser, Psychology Professor at John Knox college in the USA, argues from research that values have changed over time and that society encourages us to value things such as popularity and money over people, growth and the environment. He argues that we have become ‘a thing centred, rather than person centred’, culture and that this has several consequences: it is leading to unhappiness; harming the environment and destroying social connections.

Kasser has made a particular study of those who pursue a materialistic lifestyle. He defines materialism as ‘buying in’ to a cluster of goals related to money, fame and image. People’s materialistic values can be measured in terms of their motivation towards ‘attaining possessions, attractiveness and popularity’. (1) Kasser reports extensive and ‘consistent’ international research which shows that “People who are highly focussed on  materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic values are relatively unimportant. (2)

Kasser argues that everyone must place some value on material goods. We need food and shelter to survive. A sense of security and comfort adds enormously to the quality of our lives. From time immemorial people have placed some value on their appearance; wanted to feel some degree of pride in their  accomplishments; and have to care to some extent on how they are viewed by others. So Kasser’s argument is that ‘materialism is relative. Materialistic values become unhealthy when they are highly important in comparison with other values for which we might strive. The question is one of balance … .’ (3)

Kasser argues that there are four sets of human needs essential for motivation, functioning and well-being’. The first relates to basic survival so is about ‘safety, security and sustenance.’ Kasser maintains that feelings of insecurity can predispose people to pursue a materialistic lifestyle. Indeed contemporary international research shows that people whose needs for ‘security, safety and sustenance’ were not met by their childhood upbringing are much more like to develop a materialistic orientation to life. (4) However, the problem with this is that it often leads people to feel empty. They get things that they have aspired to in life, only to feel dissatisfied and have to move onto the next round of wants. And so the cycle continues.

The other three needs identified by Kasser echo those of Deci and Ryan’s  Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This argues from empirical research that human beings have basic psychological needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy. Kasser’s rule of thumb is that materialism is detrimental to our well-being when it compromises the fulfilment of these fundamental needs

In Self Determination Theory  relatedness refers to need to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness with others. Relatedness is about feeling  appreciated and valued as well as being able to participate and be involved in social groups. Obviously there is something fundamentally human about this need. Since children have a long dependency period on adults, our species would not survive if we were not programmed for attachment, and caring. Deci and Ryan argue that it also became adaptive for human beings to extend these feelings of attachment and altruism to ‘non-kin group members’. (5) This shift allowed for larger and more cohesive groups which afforded greater protection to their members. An influential theory advanced by Robin Dunbar maintains that human beings have large brains so that they can process the huge amounts of information needed to relate to others and live successfully in a large group.
Hoever, materialistic values encourage people to place less value on their relationships with others. Indeed research shows that those with a materialistic orientation to life care less about warm, intimate relationships and take a more instrumental view of others. Research shows that exposure to glamorous media images can make people feel more critical of their real partners.


In Self Determination Theory autonomy does not mean independence from others, nor does it mean individualism, selfishness or detachment. Rather it means having a sense of volition or control. They argue that it makes sense for human beings, operating inevitably in changing circumstances and contexts, to prefer to self-organise and self-regulate. They write:

… through autonomy individuals better regulate their own actions in accordance with their full array of felt needs and available capacities, thus coordinating and prioritizing processes toward more effective self-maintenance.  (Deci and Ryan) (6)

Examples of the importance of autonomy can be found in a variety of studies. For example, some medical research projects show that the more patients or clients are given responsibility (for example, in insulin control for diabetics) the more likely they are to adhere to the programme. Research projects with young people also shows how external rewards and punishments can  undermine their intrinsic motivation and decrease performance. Another way that materialistic values can undermine well-being is that they can makes us overly concerned with outer appearances and image. This means that I don’t do things because I value them, but because I hope it will make me look good in others’ eyes. As I attach much value to my appearance then I will often feel insecure as there are always even more glamorous people than myself and because natural ageing will inevitably work against my desires to be seen favourably by others.

In Self-Determination Theory competence refers to the need to experience oneself as capable of controlling the environment and bringing about desired outcomes. In short, to feel effective. As babies we are equipped with a natural tendency for ‘motor play, manipulation of objects, and exploration of surroundings’. 7) This primes us for growth and also means that we are naturally equipped to find satisfaction in learning for its own sake. The desire for discovery and exploration has evolutionary value leading, for example, to the discovery of new food supplies and more complex ways for group interaction. The fact that the desire to learn is open, rather than directed to specific activities, leads human beings to be ‘curious and assimiliative’ (8)The need to feel competent and effective, together with this broad interest in learning, also allows for individual development and specialization.

Extrinsic goals
For Kasser one of the main problems with materialism is that it encourages us to endorse extrinsic values such as fame, money and populartity. What this means is that people set goals in order to receive external recognition, reward or praise; people do things for the reward not for the satisfaction. Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, involve valuing something because it is inherently satisfying or meaningful, such as relationships with others, the community  or personal growth.  Holding extrinsic goals not only undermines intrinsic goals but impacts upon many facets of life thus making it less likely that we will flourish and feel fulfilled.

How are materialistic values transmitted?
There are two main mechanisms for transmitting values within society: social modeling and (in) security.  We learn from what other people say and do, such as our parents, peers and others in our surrounding environment. Researchers have found that parents who hold extrinsic goals have children who are most likely to endorse goals for fame or fortune. Parents and peers are not the only source of values but so is television. Research shows that people who watch more TV tend to endorse more materialistic goals. So too are people who live in competitive capitalist  economies. Kasser argues that this occurs because we learn from others what is normal and desirable.

The other mechanism for the transmission of materialism is insecurity. This can be created through circumstances such as divorce, parenting style or low socioeconomic status – things which are all on the rise in modern, consumer cultures. People may wrongly believe that they can feel secure by buying things, or proving themselves through fame.

(1)'The High Price of Materialism', Kasser, T, 2002,  Bradford Books, Cambridge pg   13

(2) Kasser, pg 22

(3) Kasser, pg 111

(4)Kasser, pg 35

(5)Kasser, pg 253

(6) Kasser, pg 254

(7) Kasser, pg 252

(8)Kasser, pg 253

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