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The Choose Love pop-up store in London set up to help refugees.

There’s no shame in being materialistic – it could benefit society

Materialism gets a bad press. There is an assumption that people who prioritise “things” are inherently selfish. The stereotype is that of highly materialistic people, living in a different world, where their priority is cash, possessions and status. But is the stereotype true? Our research reveals there are two sides to this story.

Highly materialistic people believe that owning and buying things are necessary means to achieve important life goals, such as happiness, success and desirability. However, in their quest to own more, they often sideline other important goals. Research shows that highly materialistic people tend to care less about the environment and other people than “non-materialists” do. These findings lead to the assumption that highly materialistic people are largely selfish and prefer to build meaningful relationships with “stuff”, as opposed to people.

But other research shows that materialism is a natural part of being human and that people develop materialistic tendencies as an adaptive response to cope with situations that make them feel anxious and insecure, such as a difficult family relationship or even our natural fear of death.

Shoppers hunt for deals on Black Friday 2015. Matt Alexander/PA Archive/PA Images

Underlying desires

Materialism is not only found in particularly materialistic people. Even referring to people as “consumers”, as opposed to using other generic terms such as citizens, can temporarily activate a materialistic mindset. As materialism researchers James Burroughs and Aric Rindfleisch said:

Telling people to be less materialistic is like telling people that they shouldn’t enjoy sex or eat fatty foods. People can learn to control their impulses, but this does not remove the underlying desires.

As such, efforts directed towards eliminating materialism (taxing or banning advertising activities) are unlikely to be effective. These anti-materialism views also limit business activities and places considerable tension between business and policy.

The caring materialists

Our research examined how materialism is perceived across cultures and it revealed that there is more to materialism than just self-gratification. In Asia, materialism is an important part of the “collectivistic” culture (where the emphasis is on relationships with others, in particular the groups a person belongs to).

Buying aspirational brands of goods and services is a common approach in the gift-giving traditions in East Asia. Across collectivistic communities, purchasing things that mirror the identity and style of people you regard as important can also help you to conform to social expectations that in turn blanket you with a sense of belonging. These behaviours are not unique to Asian societies. It’s just that the idea of materialism in the West is more often seen in sharp contrast to community values, rather than a part of it.

We also found that materialists in general are “meaning-seekers” rather than status seekers. They believe in the symbolic and signalling powers of products, brands and price tags. Materialists who also believe in community values use these cues to shed positive light onto themselves and others they care about, to meet social expectations, demonstrate belonging and even to fulfil their perceived social responsibilities. For example, people often flaunt their green and eco-friendly purchases of Tom’s shoes and Tesla cars in public to signal desirable qualities of altruism and social concern.

Reconciling material and collective interests

So how do we get an increasingly materialistic society to care more about the greater good (such as buying more ethically-sourced products or making more charity donations) and be less conspicuous and wasteful in its consumption? The answer is to look to our culture and what sort of collectivistic values it tries to teach us.

We found that a simple reminder of the community value that resonates with who we are as a society can help reduce materialistic tendencies. That said, the Asian and Western cultures tend to teach slightly different ideals of community value. Asian communities tend to pass on values that centre around interpersonal relationships (such as family duties). Western societies tend to pass on values that are abstract and spiritual (such as kindness, equality and social justice).

Unsurprisingly, many businesses have been quick to jump onto this bandwagon. Tear-jerking commercials from Thailand reminding people to buy insurance to protect loved ones, Christmas adverts reminding viewers to be kind to one another are just two examples. But nice commercials alone won’t be enough to do the job.

Social marketers and public policymakers should tap into society’s materialistic tendencies to promote well-meaning social programmes, such as refugee settlement, financial literacy programmes and food bank donations. The key is to promote these programmes in ways that materialists can engage with – through a public display of consumption that communicates social identity.

A perfect example is the Choose Love charity pop-up store in central London, where people get to purchase real products (blankets, children’s clothing, sleeping bags, sanitary pads) in a beautifully designed retail space akin to the Apple store, which are then distributed to refugees in Greece, Iraq and Syria.

Materialism undoubtedly has an ugly face but it is here to stay. Rather than focusing efforts to diminish it, individual consumers, businesses and policymakers should focus on using it for promoting collective interests that benefit wider society.

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