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Materialism Pathways: The Processes that Create and Perpetuate Materialism

Marsha L. Richins

PII: S1057-7408(17)30051-7
DOI: doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2017.07.006
Reference: JCPS 591

To appear in: Journal of Consumer Psychology

Received date: 11 November 2016


Revised date: 27 July 2017
Accepted date: 28 July 2017

Please cite this article as: Richins, M.L., Materialism Pathways: The Processes
that Create and Perpetuate Materialism, Journal of Consumer Psychology (2017),
doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2017.07.006

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Materialism Pathways: The Processes that Create and Perpetuate Materialism

Marsha L. Richinsa

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University of Missouri

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Trulaske College of Business, University of Missouri, Cornell Hall, Columbia, MO
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65211, United States.

The author thanks Omid Kamran-Disfani and Yiwen Chen, doctoral students at the
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University of Missouri, for their assistance in collecting articles for this review.
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E-mail address: RichinsM@missouri.edu.


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Keywords: materialism; values; socialization; child development


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Abstract

Materialism has been examined in many social science disciplines from multiple perspectives.

This review synthesizes this extensive literature into two organizing frameworks that describe

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how materialism develops in children and how materialism is reinforced and perpetuated in

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adulthood. The major components of the developmental model are the daily event cycle,

developmental tasks, cultural influence, and family environment, all of which interact to

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influence how materialistic a child becomes. The reinforcement model describes how personal

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qualities that materialists tend to possess make them more vulnerable to threats in daily events,

resulting in psychological discomfort. The desire to reduce this discomfort, in conjunction with
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the transformative powers that materialists ascribe to acquisition, results in actions and outcomes

that reinforce materialistic tendencies. Suggestions for furthering the study of materialism are
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also included.
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Some consumer needs are best met by things. There’s no substitute for a good umbrella

on a rainy day, a smart phone provides convenience in communication, and nonstick cookware

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makes after dinner cleanup easier. But products are limited in what they can do for us, and some

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needs are better met by experiences than by things. The desire for emotional security and

tenderness is fulfilled by spending time with family and friends. A sense of competence and

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achievement can be enhanced by learning to play tennis or how to fix a bicycle flat. People meet

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their needs with a mix of the material and experiential. A family camping adventure, after all, is

more successful if there’s a cook stove and tent along for the trip. But some people place a
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disproportionate emphasis on things to meet their needs, and they highly value acquisition as a

means to achieve important life goals. Western culture has labeled these people materialists.
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Materialism has been the subject of debate and discourse throughout recorded history

(see Belk, 1983, and Rudmin & Kilbourne, 1996, for reviews). More recently, scholarly research
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has undertaken empirical examination of materialism. This review synthesizes this burgeoning
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empirical literature by presenting two frameworks that describe how materialism develops in
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individuals and how it is sustained by responses to events in daily life. These frameworks focus

on materialism in economically developed Western countries. Although materialism exists in

countries around the world, regardless of level of economic development (Belk, 1988), the

development and expression of materialism is culture-specific (Ger & Belk, 1996), and a

discussion of these cultural differences is beyond the scope of this review.

Conceptualizing Materialism

Before describing how materialism develops, it is essential to define it. Scholars have

used varying conceptualizations of materialism, and the term can mean different things to
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different people in everyday conversation. To better understand the materialism construct,

Fournier and Richins (1991) examined how it has been conceived in the social science literature

and compared those conceptualizations with popular understandings of materialism among

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American consumers. The authors concluded that materialism is best conceptualized as a value

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orientation in which materialists place a high value on acquisition as a means to reach important

life goals. This value-oriented approach accords well with the first formal characterization of

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materialism in the consumer behavior literature, which described materialism as the importance a

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consumer places on worldly possessions (Belk, 1985).

Following on this foundational work, Richins and Dawson (1992) defined materialism as
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“the importance a person places on possessions and their acquisition as a necessary or desirable

form of conduct to reach desired end states” (p. 307). This definition is widely accepted and is
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the one used for purposes of this review. Richins and Dawson further refined understanding of

the materialism construct by delineating three facets. First, acquisition centrality is the extent to
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which possessions and acquisition are a central focus of one’s life. Second, the pursuit of
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happiness through acquisition is the belief that acquiring more or different things will increase
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happiness and well-being. The third facet, possession defined success, is the tendency to gauge

the success of oneself and of others by possessions. Thus, materialism is characterized as a set of

value-laden beliefs that guide people’s daily lives and their consumption decisions.

This conceptualization also allows us to specify what materialism is not. It is not a

behavior or set of behaviors. More specifically, counter to the impression of some, materialism is

not the consumption of luxury goods, nor is it conspicuous consumption. Although materialists

may engage in these consumption practices, this relationship is not deterministic. Materialism

involves the desire for more, but the nature of that “more” is unspecified.
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Furthermore, materialism is not a dichotomy, and the population cannot be divided into

materialists and non-materialists. Instead, materialism is a continuum ranging from low to high,

and there may be no such thing as a non-materialist. People recognize that goods have value and

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can be used to improve quality of life. The difference between those low and high in materialism

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is a matter of degree, with high materialists viewing material goods as an important, and often

the best, way to achieve goals, whether it be to impress a member of the opposite sex or to have

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fun on a weekend. Low materialists, on the other hand, rely primarily on other means to meet

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needs, such as spending time with others, learning new skills, or developing a hobby.

An important quality of materialism is that it is learned. Although studies have found


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significant correlations between the materialism levels of children and their parents (Buijzen &

Valkenburg, 2003; Chaplin & John, 2010; Flouri, 1999; Goldberg, Gorn, Peracchio, & Bamossy,
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2003), research has ruled out the possibility that this relationship has a genetic basis (Giddens,

Schermer, & Vernon, 2009; Renner et al., 2012). If not inherited, then material values must be
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learned. Moschis (2007) has described the importance of examining events in the life course to
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understand how materialism is learned, but investigations into the association between childhood
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circumstances and materialism have been scattered and equivocal. This paper provides a

unifying framework for examining childhood influences on the development of materialism.

Following this, the paper presents a second framework that examines how materialism, once

acquired, can be perpetuated by a person’s response to daily events.

The Development of Materialism in Childhood

Childhood is dominated by the need and desire to learn. Learning takes place

continuously each day, and the cumulative result of many small daily events is a set of skills that

enable a child to pursue a successful life within society: the ability to walk, talk, and read; how to
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interact with peers and adults; how to ride a bike and how to dress for a prom. The processes of

mastering such skills have been referred to as developmental tasks (Havighurst, 1972). Two such

tasks are especially relevant to the development of materialism: creating a secure personal

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identity and developing satisfactory peer relationships. Both tasks become especially salient

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during the middle school years (Erikson, 1963). Indeed, to parents, these tasks often seem to be

all-consuming at this age, with other developmental tasks and life responsibilities subservient to

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these two.

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Mastery of developmental tasks is gradual and incremental, and gaining a satisfactory

personal identity and learning how to effectively interact with peers are the cumulative result of
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countless small daily events. The interplay of daily events, key developmental tasks, and

materialism-related outcomes is shown in broad outline in Figure 1 and in greater detail in Figure
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2. Because the middle school years are the key period of identity development and the period in

which materialism in children increases (Chaplin & John, 2007), the model shown in these
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figures focuses primarily on that time in a child’s life.


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The Daily Event Cycle


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A child’s life is filled with small daily events: lunch in the school cafeteria, soccer

practice, a math test, playing videogames with a friend, watching television, and the like.

Successful management of each event requires the use of specific skills or resources on the part

of the child. For example, playing soccer requires some athletic ability, emotional control, and

various social and communication skills. Success on a math test requires intellectual ability, self-

discipline, and the ability to focus.

Each child has his/her own unique assortment of resources. One child may be good at

math and tennis and have great social skills, but falter in art class. Another child may have a
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wicked sense of humor, own cool electronic devices, and know everything about the popular

music scene. It is useful, for our purposes, to divide these resources into two categories:

intangible resources, such as intelligence, wit, athletic skill, and social skills; and tangible

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resources that include clothes, possessions, and money.

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When managing an event, the child can choose from this assortment of resources. In most

cases, as suggested by drive theory (Hull, 1943; Spence, 1956), the child will utilize the

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resources that are most readily available or best learned. For example, in a lunchroom interaction,

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a child might pull a prank on friends or might start a conversation about a new videogame. If the

child isn’t confident in his ability to pull off a successful prank but is knowledgeable about
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gaming, he most likely will choose the conversation option. Consistent with social facilitation

theory (Zajonc, 1965), this reliance on the most readily available resource is especially likely to
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be the case when daily events occur in the presence of others.

Outcomes and Identity Task Mastery


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In a child’s life, every daily event is a learning opportunity. Each event has an outcome,
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and both positive and negative outcomes have learning value. Most immediately, the child learns
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which strategies and resource applications work well and which do not. For example, telling fart

jokes to friends in middle school usually has a favorable outcome, while complaining about an

earache does not. In addition, event outcomes teach the child which types of daily events she

excels at and which result in failure, and are thus to be avoided. This can lead to role

specialization, in which the child begins to avoid anything athletic (if one is often picked last in

P.E. team formation) or seeks out shopping activities (if one’s fashion sense is praised).

Eventually, one child may gradually acquire the role of science nerd, another becomes a jock,

and yet another becomes known as artsy. The accumulation of outcomes over time leads to self-
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knowledge and an emerging sense of identity.

One daily event outcome of critical importance for developing a sense of self is social

comparison. People in general, and middle school children especially, are engaged in a constant

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process of measuring themselves in comparison with others. Comparisons may be made with

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peers, with celebrities, or with fictional media characters (e.g., Chan & Prendergast, 2007;

Smolak & Stein, 2006). Because people have a bias toward making upward comparisons (Buunk

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& Gibbons, 2007), the outcome of these comparisons can be a sense of inferiority or deficiency.

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Such outcomes may also motivate children to study more in school, try harder at team workouts,

spend more time practicing the piano, or to acquire more cool clothing or gear so they can
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measure up to peers. Social comparisons will be examined in more detail in the discussion of the

reinforcement model. For purposes of the developmental model, suffice it to say that social
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comparison on tangible elements such as clothing and possessions can lead to envy (Levesque,

2011) and to increased emphasis on these items for developing a sense of self.
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Children also learn from daily events that goods can be effective for developing and
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expressing their emerging identity. You can remind people that you’re good at soccer simply by
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wearing your soccer jersey to school. You can gain confidence in your appearance by wearing

the right brand of jeans or a popular line of cosmetics. You can be reassured in your identity as a

competent gamer by showing off your new gaming system.

Reliance on Things and the Insecure, Unstable Self

As noted above, children rely on resources that are readily available and in which they

have the most confidence when they manage daily events. Depending on their personal resource

assortment, some will rely heavily on intangible resources (skills, knowledge, etc.) to develop a

personal identity. Others, who might not be confident in their skills and other intangible
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resources, or who have easy access to desirable possessions and clothing, will rely more on

tangible resources for identity development. For some, it may simply be easier to cultivate

tangible resources than intangible ones; after all, going shopping takes less self-discipline and

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provides more immediate payoff than practicing piano every day or taking golf lessons.

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However, relying on tangible resources for identity development has drawbacks because

it is likely to result in an identity that is less stable and less confidently held, for at least two

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reasons. First, intangible resources are essentially a part of one’s self, but tangible resources are

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external, and the link between these resources and the self is more tenuous. Second, the

meanings of tangible items such as clothing and possessions are constantly shifting. What’s cool
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one week may be passé the next, and fashion-forward items eventually become stale. Thus, a

person relying on things to define the self must continually research the meanings of goods and
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replenish one’s personal stock with items that communicate the appropriate meaning—tasks that
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can have uncertain payoffs and that demand emotional, temporal, and monetary resources.
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Accordingly, Figure 2 shows that identity task mastery processes are likely to result in an
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insecure, unstable self when the child relies heavily on things to develop identity. Evidence for
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this proposition comes from Gil, Kwon, Good, and Johnson (2012), who found that teens who

relied more on products to make a good impression were lower in self-concept clarity. Indirect

evidence is also provided by Rhee and Johnson (2012), who found that teens who used brands to

define their identity (i.e., their most favored brands were congruent with their ideal self rather

than with their actual self) were higher in materialism than other teens. As we will see in the next

section, an unstable self is one of the most consistently reported correlates of materialism.

The Unstable Self and Materialism

A convincing body of evidence indicates that adult materialists do not have a firmly held
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sense of self. Compared with others, materialists have more ambivalence in their sense of self-

worth (Frost, Kyrios, McCarthy, & Matthews, 2007), score lower on self-concept certainty

(Noguti & Bokeyar, 2014), have lower self-concept clarity (Gountas, Gountas, Reeves, & Moran,

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2012; Reeves, Baker, & Truluck, 2012; Watson, 2014), and have more self-doubt (Chang &

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Arkin, 2002; Christopher, Drummond, Jones, Marek, & Therriault, 2006; Rindfleisch, Burroughs,

& Wong, 2009). Materialistic adults also report higher levels of personal insecurity during

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childhood than other people do (Richins & Chaplin, 2015). Research among children and

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adolescents is more limited but points in the same direction. Children who are more susceptible

to peer influence can be said to have a less secure sense of self, and research consistently shows
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a strong relationship between this susceptibility and materialism among children (Dávila,

Casabayó, & Singh, 2017; Opree et al., 2011; Roberts, Manolis, & Tanner, 2008).
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The discussion so far has shown how the developmental task of identity creation is

shaped by daily events and the resources available to manage these events. We’ve also seen how
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resource choices to manage this task can encourage the development of materialism. In the next
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section, we turn to the developmental task concerning peer relationships.


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Mastery of Peer Relationships

The development of peer relationships is an extremely important priority for children in

middle school. Focal activities for the peer relationship task involve conversations and shared

activities, but concern about peers is present in almost every daily event a child this age

encounters (Parker, Rubin, Erath, Wojslawowicz, & Buskirk, 2006). To achieve satisfactory peer

relationships, a child must gain and sustain the attention of others, present him/herself in an

appealing way, and achieve the approval of peers. This must be done every day, and many times

throughout the day. The resource requirements to accomplish these outcomes are very high, and
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the situation is complicated by the fact that children this age do not yet have a well developed

identity that can anchor their interactions.

As with identity mastery, children can use intangible and tangible resources to manage

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peer relationships. A child who doesn’t have strong social skills or isn’t good in sports can

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cement friendships with things—by talking about them, sharing possessions (clothes, gaming

systems), and shopping with friends (Mangleburg, Doney, & Bristol, 2004). The cumulative

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result of daily events involving peers is increasing competence in interpersonal skills and

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emerging mastery of the peer relationship developmental task.

Another cumulative result is a greater appreciation for the uses of goods in managing
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daily events. Children learn that possessions can be used to gain the attention of others, to

present the self in an appealing way, and to achieve approval and status. Incidentally, children
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also come to realize that goods can be used to relieve boredom, have fun, and manage one’s
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mood. For example, shopping or viewing YouTube on a phone can be effective distractions if
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one is bummed out about a bad test score or a social snub experienced earlier in the day.
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When children rely extensively on goods to master developmental tasks and manage
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daily events, a likely cumulative effect is the creation of transformation expectations about goods.

Transformation expectations are the belief that one’s life would be changed in a meaningful way

by the acquisition of a specific consumer good. Richins (2011) identified five categories of life

transformations that people expect to gain by making a purchase: transformation of self-identity,

physical appearance, relationships with others, amount of pleasure experienced in life, and

efficacy in carrying out daily responsibilities. While transformation expectations have not been

studied among children, in adults the relationship between materialism and transformation

expectations has consistently been strong (Boonchoo & Thoumrungroje, 2017; Donnelly,
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Ksendzova, & Howell, 2013; Richins, 2011, 2013).

The literature on children’s peer relationships provides some further insights into how

peers may shape a young person’s materialism, within the processes described above.

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Materialistic adolescents have materialistic friends (Chaplin & John, 2010; Sutton 2013),

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possibly because young people bond more readily with those who share their values.

Participation in daily events with materialistic friends can lead to mutual escalation as

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adolescents fuel each other’s materialistic tendencies when they discuss products, shop together,

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and compare acquisitions. Indeed, many studies have found that materialistic adolescents talk

about consumption with friends more often than do less materialistic teens (Churchill & Moschis,
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1979; Flouri, 1999; Weaver, Moschis, & Davis, 2011).

Peers also influence materialism through peer pressure. Adolescents can be cruel in
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enforcing material conformity (Wooten, 2006), and among young people, perceived peer

pressure to have the “right” kind of clothes and possessions is associated with materialism
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(Banerjee & Dittmar, 2008). Facebook, Instagram, and similar social media are effective
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instruments of peer influence. These media send strong messages about the kinds of things one
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must own to fit in and be considered acceptable.

Conversely, supportive peers can dampen materialistic inclinations by strengthening self-

esteem, which in turn reduces the need to gain approval through acquisition and material

conformity (Chaplin & John, 2010; Gentina, Shrum, Lowrey, Vitell, & Rose, in press). By the

same token, peer rejection lowers self-esteem and appears to increase materialism among

adolescents (Banerjee & Dittmar, 2008; Jiang, Zhang, Ke, Hawk, & Qiu, 2015).

The discussion above described how key developmental tasks can be shaped by daily

events, and how materialism is influenced by these events and children’s use of resources to
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manage them. In the following sections, we examine two important environmental influences on

these processes: the larger cultural and economic environment in which these processes take

place, and the childhood family environment. These two factors influence the process in a

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pervasive way by affecting the daily events to which a child is exposed, the resources available

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to the child, and the manner in which developmental task mastery proceeds.

Affluent Capitalist Economic Environment

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It is widely believed that growing up in the midst of affluence in a capitalist culture leads

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to materialism (e.g., De Graaf, Wann, & Naylor, 2005; Easterlin, 2007; Kasser, Cohn, Kanner, &

Ryan, 2007). However, data to support this idea is difficult to come by. Because culture is
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pervasive and inescapable, within any one society it is difficult to assess culture’s effects on an

individual’s personal values. However, examination of individual differences in exposure to


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cultural institutions can provide insight into the relationship between culture and values.

Media and the development of materialism. Television programming is one institution


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of Western capitalist culture that has been studied in the context of materialism. More recent
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media innovations such as video streaming services (e.g., Netflix, Hulu) and online video
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(YouTube) have not been well studied in this context but are also likely to be relevant. If media

exposure influences material values, it is likely to do so by affecting one or more elements in the

model illustrated in Figure 2. Possible impact points are described below.

The resource portfolio. Watching television and other media can affect a child’s resource

portfolio. Exposure to media can increase certain kinds of expertise, such as knowledge of

professional sports, entertainment news, and fashion trends, and this knowledge can be useful in

managing interpersonal relationships. Watching dramas and reality programming can give

children information about life (although some information may be inaccurate, unrealistic, or
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biased) and suggest strategies for managing developmental tasks (Hoffner & Buchanan, 2005).

While media exposure facilitates development of some skills, it can interfere with the

development of others. More time consuming media means less time available to develop

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athletic, intellectual, and artistic resources that a child could apply to developmental tasks.

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Task mastery and uses of goods. Media programming and advertising can suggest

strategies to manage developmental tasks. Because of the commercial nature of most

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programming, media viewing may encourage children to rely on products for mastery of

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relationship and identity tasks. In addition, advertising commonly depicts product purchase as a

way to solve problems, and it almost always ascribes transformative powers to goods in an
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attempt to encourage people to buy. Extensive exposure to these kinds of messages may lead

young people, whose powers of critical thinking are still developing, to believe that purchase of
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specific products can be an effective way to deal with life problems and that product acquisition

can transform their lives in meaningful ways, beliefs that are indicative of materialism.
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Insecure, unstable self. Some types of programming and advertising may encourage
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social comparison. Seeing the buff body of an athlete, the glossy hair on a model, or the cool
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clothes worn by participants in a reality show can make young people feel inferior about their

own appearance and possessions at a time when they are especially vulnerable to these kinds of

comparisons (Isaksen & Roper, 2008). These comparisons may lead to negative self-feelings

(Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2004) and encourage materialistic behavior to repair those feelings,

as will be discussed later in the context of the reinforcement model.

Direct effects on materialism. Finally, media may directly encourage materialism

through three mechanisms. The first is a low involvement learning effect (Hawkins, Hoch, &

Meyers-Levy, 2001). Most advertising and some programming directly promote materialistic
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values, and repeated exposure to these messages lends veracity to material values and makes

them appear acceptable and commonplace. Second, exposure to media may encourage

materialism by showcasing the use of goods by happy, attractive “people” and by implicitly (in

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programming) and explicitly (in advertising) demonstrating that these goods enhance happiness

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and quality of life. This can create transformation expectations and foster a materialistic mindset.

Third, repeated exposure to the idealized images of success and affluence that often occur in

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advertising and programming can upwardly shift children’s expectations about what is “normal”

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in terms of acquisition and possession. This shift in expectations can create dissatisfaction with

one’s own assortment of goods, leading to an increased emphasis on acquisition of things so one
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can achieve what seems to be a normal standard of living (Richins, 1995). In support of this idea,

research has shown that simply viewing images of luxury consumer goods increases one’s
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emphasis on material goals, as well as increasing the amount of anxiety and depressed affect

(e.g., sadness) a person feels (Bauer, Wilkie, Kim, & Bodenhausen, 2012).
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The effects described in the paragraphs above suggest that television viewing and
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materialism would be positively correlated in children, and this has been confirmed empirically
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(e.g., Buijzen & Valkenburg, 2003; Chan & Prendergast, 2007; Opree, Buijzen, van Reijmersdal,

& Valkenburg, 2013). However, the observed relationships tend to be small (typically below .20).

One possible reason for these low correlations is that in measuring television exposure,

researchers have lumped together all forms of television programming. However, cartoons, teen

dramas, sports programming, and educational programs have very different content and are

likely to affect the processes in the developmental model quite differently.

Another possible explanation for low correlations is that simple correlation analysis

obscures the role of potential moderators in the relationship between viewing and materialism. In
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studies of adults, three moderators to this relationship have been identified. First, Richins (1987)

found that the correlation between materialism and television viewing was significant only for

those consumers who consider the people portrayed in television advertising to be typical of

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people in real life. Second, attention also seems to moderate the relationship between television

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viewing and materialism. Shrum, Burroughs, and Rindfleisch (2005) found that the relationship

between materialism and viewing was stronger for people who pay more attention to

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programming and who have a tendency to think deeply about things. Finally, Shrum, Lee,

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Burroughs, and Rindfleisch (2011) found that viewers who were transported (became absorbed

in the world of the media program, reacted emotionally, and had vivid thoughts) scored higher
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on materialism after viewing programming with a materialistic theme than did those who were

not transported. The role of such mediators have not been examined in studies of children’s
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television viewing.

The evidence shows that, among children, television viewing is associated with
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materialism to some extent. However, these correlational studies cannot establish causation, and
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a plausible alternative explanation is that materialistic children simply choose to watch more
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television. Additional longitudinal studies and experimental research would be useful to better

understand whether and how television viewing and other media exposure foster materialism.

Shopping environment exposure. Another cultural influence on the development of

materialism is the modern shopping environment, which in Western economies is an

embodiment of consumerist, materialistic values. In shopping malls, downtown shopping

districts, and online stores, consumers have access to a tempting array of goods that can easily be

purchased even by those short on cash. It has been proposed that frequent exposure to these

environments of plentitude and easy access encourages the formation of materialistic values
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(Kasser et al., 2007; Pollay 1986).

Unfortunately, empirical research has not tested this proposition. Although materialistic

adults shop more than less materialistic adults (Fitzmaurice & Comegys, 2006; Flynn, Goldsmith,

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& Pollitte, 2016; Segev, Shoham, & Gavish, 2015), only two studies have examined the

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relationship between childhood exposure to shopping environments and materialism. Goldberg et

al. (2003) found that children who spent more time in shopping environments were higher in

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materialism. The second study, using retrospective data, found materialism in adulthood to be

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associated with childhood exposure to shopping environments (Richins, 2017). However, it is

impossible to infer from these studies whether exposure to shopping environments creates
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materialism or, alternatively, that materialistic children’s love of things encourages them to shop

more often. In any event, exposure to shopping environments in which desirable goods can be
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touched and tried can create the illusion that these goods are attainable and encourage

materialistic imagining of what it would be like to own them, reinforcing materialistic tendencies.
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Further, frequent shopping suggests that a child is relying heavily on goods to manage
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developmental tasks, which in turn places young people at risk of becoming materialistic.
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Family Environment and Parenting

The family is the single most important socializing influence on a child’s development,

and family impacts in the developmental model are expected to be pervasive, affecting the daily

event cycle, task mastery processes, and a variety of outcomes. The literature on family

circumstances and parenting, as they relate to the model, are described below.

Family circumstances. A child’s economic background is one family circumstance that

has been studied quite extensively in the context of materialism. In terms of the developmental

model, the family’s financial situation probably has its greatest impact on a child’s resource
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assortment. It will affect whether the child is able to receive specialized training (e.g., music or

dance lessons, sports clinics) to develop important identity-defining intangible resources and

whether the child is able to participate in expensive peer oriented activities (e.g., summer camp).

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A higher family income also provides a child with a larger supply of tangible resources, making

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it easier for the child to rely heavily on things (e.g., branded clothing, electronic equipment) in

developmental task processes. There may be other effects as well, as when a child perceives that

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others have more than he/she does, resulting in feelings of inferiority and a desire to remove

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those feelings by acquiring more things (Zhang, Tian, Lei, Yu, & Liu, 2015).

Research on the association between childhood economic resources and materialism is


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mixed. Kasser, Ryan, Zax, and Sameroff (1995) found that 18-year-olds with economically

disadvantaged childhoods were more likely to value financial success than those from more
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privileged households (see also Twenge & Kasser, 2013), and subsequent research has attempted

to determine whether this relationship extends to material values as well. Results are inconsistent,
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with some studies showing a negative association between childhood economic resources and
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materialism (Chaplin, Hill, & John, 2014; Goldberg et al., 2003; Nairn, Bottomley, & Ormrod,
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2010), some showing a positive association (Baker, Moschis, Benmoyal-Bouzaglo, & dos Santos,

2013; Manchiraju & Son, 2014), and some no association (e.g., Grougiou & Moschis, 2015; Ku,

Dittmar, & Banerjee, 2012; Rindfleisch, Burroughs, & Denton, 1997).

Divorce or permanent separation of parents is the other childhood family circumstance

that has received attention from materialism scholars. Family disruption often creates financial

stressors that affect a child’s economic circumstances and can reduce the emotional support the

child receives. Burroughs and Rindfleisch (1997) proposed that children of disrupted families

develop materialistic values as a way of coping with these stressors and associated feelings of
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insecurity. However, empirical evidence for this relationship is inconclusive, with some studies

finding that disruption is associated with materialism (Rindfleisch et al., 1997; Roberts, Tanner,

& Manolis, 2005) while others do not (Flouri, 1999, 2007; Roberts, Manolis, & Tanner, 2006).

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When the measure of family disruption is expanded to include other disruptive events such as

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parental absence, moving to a new place of residence, and physical abuse, results are also

inconclusive, with some studies showing a positive association between disruptive events and

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materialism (e.g., Rindfleisch et al., 1997; Weaver et al., 2011), while others find no relationship

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(e.g., Baker et al., 2013; Benmoyal-Bouzaglo & Moschis, 2010).

In summary, empirical studies show no consistent relationship between adult material


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values and either childhood economic status or childhood family disruption. It may be that

specific family circumstances do not matter nearly as much as how parents interact with their
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children within those circumstances. The next section examines some of these possible parental

influences on materialism.
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Parental influences. Three parenting variables have been studied in the context of
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materialism. The first is whether parents use a socio-oriented communication style, in which
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parents emphasize deference to others and harmonious social relationships. This, in turn, may

foster materialism because children will learn to evaluate their purchases based on how others

perceive them (Moore & Moschis, 1981). This review found eight studies that examined the

relationship between socio-oriented communication and materialism. In three studies the

relationship was not statistically significant (Benmoyal-Bouzaglo & Moschis, 2010; Flouri,

1999; Moore & Moschis, 1981). One study found a significant negative (rather than positive)

relationship (Grougiou & Moschis, 2015). The mean correlation in the remaining four studies

was .17 (Bristol & Mangleburg, 2005; Moschis & Moore, 1979; Moschis, Ong, Mathur,
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Yamashita, & Benmoyal- Bouzaglo, 2011; Weaver et al., 2011). Thus, it appears that socio-

oriented communication style has no direct bearing on children’s materialism, although it may

act as an undiscovered moderator for some other parenting-materialism relationship.

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Parental warmth is the second parenting variable that’s been studied. Although it has

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been proposed that warm, supportive parenting received during childhood will result in lower

materialism, the mechanisms for this have not been fully explicated. In the context of the

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developmental model, it is likely that children with supportive parents will be more likely to

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have a stable and secure sense of self (Chaplin & John, 2010), making them less susceptible to

materialistic impulses. It is also possible that warm and strong family ties can help children resist
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peers’ demands for material conformity.

In any event, evidence for the relationship between parental warmth and child’s
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materialism is somewhat contradictory. Kasser et al. (1995) found a negative relationship

between maternal nurturance and importance of financial success among teens. Similarly, two
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studies found small negative associations between satisfaction with one’s mother and
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materialism (Flouri, 1999; Rindfleisch & Burroughs, 1999). On the other hand, four large data
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collections found significant positive relationships between perceived parental warmth during

childhood and materialism in adulthood (Richins & Chaplin, 2015; Richins, 2017). That is,

people whose parents were warm and supportive when they were children were more likely to be

materialistic as adults.

Material parenting—the use of material rewards and punishments in interactions with

children (Richins & Chaplin, 2015)—is the third parenting variable of interest. Buying

something for a child who has made good grades, taking a toy away for hitting a sibling, or

buying a teen a cute t-shirt just because she wants it are examples of material parenting.
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Analysis of this mediating variable explained the unexpected positive relationship

between parental warmth and materialism found by Richins and Chaplin. Parents who are warm

and loving tend to engage in material parenting, both to show their affection and to shape their

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children’s behavior to prepare them for adulthood. The result of material parenting, however, can

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be a childhood saturated with consumer goods, providing plenty of tangible resources that

children can use in their management of daily events. These abundant resources increase the

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likelihood that children will rely on goods to shape their identities and manage their relationships,

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rather than relying on intangible resources such as personal skills for these ends. This reliance on

goods for such purposes is a central feature of materialism. And indeed, in studies that assessed
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material parenting, there were strong associations between material parenting received in

childhood and the success facet of materialism in adulthood (Richins & Chaplin, 2015; Richins,
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2017). Thus, this research suggests that parental warmth, rather than protecting against

materialism as previously proposed, can actually foster materialism.


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However, the Richins and Chaplin research revealed additional complexities in the
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relationship between parenting and children’s materialism by also examining parental rejection
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(e.g., expressing disappointment in a child, spending little time with the child), a dimension of

parenting that is distinct from warmth (Rohner, 2004). Parental rejection was associated with

insecure feelings in childhood, which in turn was associated with the happiness facet of

materialism in adulthood. This is consistent Chaplin and John’s (2010) finding that children with

supportive parents have greater personal security (as measured by self-esteem) and place lower

emphasis on material things than do children with less supportive parents.

The studies cited above indicate that at least two parenting practices are important

mechanisms by which children’s material values are socialized. Specifically, material parenting
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appears to increase the likelihood a child will become materialistic by encouraging the child to

rely heavily on things during developmental task mastery. Second, parental rejection can create

feelings of insecurity that put the child at risk for materialism. Finally, although not addressed by

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research, it is also likely that children learn material values by observing their parents’ material

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values and behaviors and may come to emulate their way of acquiring and interacting with things.

The Middle School Logic of Materialism

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The developmental model describes how the daily events a child confronts, the resources

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that the child applies to manage events, and event outcomes shape the developmental tasks of

identity creation and mastery of peer relationships. It also describes how elements of the child’s
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environment and the child’s selective reliance on tangible resources for these developmental

tasks can foster conditions strongly associated with materialism, and possibly materialism itself.
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While this process may continue throughout much of one’s life, the two developmental tasks at
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the center of the model are especially salient during the middle school years and give rise to a
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“middle school logic” concerning goods, familiar to almost any parent of a child that age.
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 People will like me better if I could have x (where x is usually a popular clothing or
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electronics item)

 I will be cool and have higher status if I have x.

 When people like me and I’m cool, I’m happy.

 Therefore, getting x will make me happy.

This syllogism embodies the essence of materialism: the belief that acquisition will help

one achieve important life goals (in this case, happiness, friendship, and positive self-feelings).

There is a kernel of truth in this material logic during the middle school years. Children can be

shunned or ridiculed for not having the right possessions. An important question, though, is
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whether this syllogism is also true in adulthood. This question can be answered by examining

research on the relationship between acquisition and happiness among adults.

Although materialists enjoy shopping and buying (Gatersleben, White, Abrahamse,

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Jackson, & Uzzell, 2010; Goldsmith, Flynn, & Clark, 2011), these activities don’t seem to result

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in increased happiness or well-being after purchase. Richins (2013) found that high materialism

consumers felt positive emotions when anticipating the purchase of a desired item and shopping

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for it, but then experienced a decline in positive emotions after purchase; low materialism

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consumers did not experience this hedonic decline. Similarly, Noguti and Bokeyar (2014) found

that materialistic consumers (compared to low materialists) were in a more positive mood before
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and while shopping, but after the purchase experienced more negative emotions. Other studies

have also found that materialists report more negative emotions after purchase (Fitzmaurice,
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2008; Richins, McKeage, & Najjar, 1992).

Thus, evidence indicates that materialists are misguided in their beliefs that acquisition
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will increase their happiness, and the middle school syllogism is not valid in adulthood. In fact,
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as young people gain maturity and are able to focus more on internal qualities rather than
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external signs to judge others and form friendships, many outgrow the materialistic way of

thinking. However, others do not. They continue to lead their lives and make acquisitions as if

the syllogism is true. The next section presents the second framework in this review and shows

how materialism can be a self-sustaining process that is difficult to break.

The Perpetuation of Materialism

Materialism is perpetuated within an individual because it is reinforced. Our discussion

of the materialism reinforcement model, outlined in broad form in Figure 3, begins with an

analysis of the personal qualities of materialists. The model proposes that several personal
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qualities make materialists especially vulnerable to threats encountered in daily life. This

vulnerability leads to unpleasant psychological states that the materialist is motivated to reduce.

Although there are many ways to reduce these unpleasant states, because materialists have strong

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beliefs in the transformative powers of acquisition, they are more likely than others to manage

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the unpleasant psychological state by making a purchase. This purchase temporarily removes the

unpleasant psychological state and at the same time reinforces the belief in the transformative

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power of goods, and also reinforces materialistic beliefs and values.

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The materialism reinforcement model is described in detail below by analyzing one

personal quality associated with materialism—an insecure and unstable self-concept. This is
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followed by briefer discussions of how the model works with respect to two other personal

qualities: insecurity in social relationships and dispositional unhappiness.


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Self-Concept and the Reinforcement Cycle

A notable characteristic of materialists is that they tend to be more insecure than other
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people (Kasser, 2002). As described earlier, this characterization has been borne out in research
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showing that materialists (relative to others) tend to have an insecure, unstable sense of self,
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evidenced by ambivalence in their sense of self-worth, lower self-concept certainty and self-

concept clarity, and greater self-doubt.

A related notion, mentioned often in the literature, is that materialists have low self-

esteem. However, evidence for this assertion is mixed. In ten studies involving fourteen data

collections, five found no significant relationship between self-esteem and materialism; in the

remaining data collections, only two correlations exceeded -.20 in magnitude (Chang & Arkin,

2002; Flouri, 2007; Grougiou & Moschis, 2015; Kim, Callan, Gheorghiu, & Matthews, 2016;

Mick, 1996; Noguti & Bokeyar, 2014; Park & John, 2011; Reeves et al., 2012; Richins &
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Dawson, 1992; Ruvio, Somer, & Rindfleisch, 2014). Weakness in the association between self-

esteem and materialism may stem from the inherent instability of self-concept among

materialists, which suggest that materialists’ self-esteem varies from day to day, or even moment

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to moment, depending on mood and daily events.

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Of greater interest for our purpose is self-esteem discrepancy—the inconsistency between

explicit (self-reported) self-esteem and implicit (unconscious) self-esteem (measured by the

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Implicit Association Test). A person with high explicit but low implicit self-esteem is said to

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have fragile high self-esteem, which is easily threatened by daily events and requires strong

defenses to be maintained (Kernis & Paradise, 2002). People with higher self-esteem discrepancy
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are higher in materialism (Park & John, 2011). Materialists tend to have other self-discrepancies

as well, including discrepancies between their ideal and real selves (Carr & Vignoles, 2011;
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Dittmar, 2005). These discrepancies create psychological discomfort, which people are

motivated to alleviate by reducing the perceived discrepancy (Jordan, Spencer, Zanna, Hoshino-
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Browne, & Correll, 2003) or by other means (Mandel, Rucker, Levav, & Galinsky, 2017).
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Another characteristic of materialists is an external definition of self. More than others,


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their self-concept is shaped and maintained by the goods they own (Shrum et al., 2013), and, as

described later in the section on interpersonal relationships, they care greatly what others think of

them. Even beliefs about ideal body shape are more externally determined for high (than for low)

materialists (Guðnadottir & Garðarsdottir, 2014).

This combination of self-concept instability and an external construction of self makes

the materialist especially vulnerable to daily events that threaten the self. Rocky performance in

a presentation, a social snub, or the realization that one can’t afford to buy as nice a car as a

disliked coworker can disrupt one’s self-view as a capable, well-liked, and successful person.
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These self-discrepancies may be shrugged off by someone with a strong sense of self but are not

so easily dismissed by one whose self-concept is less certain. Indeed, Greenier et al. (1999)

found that, at the end of a day, those with self-esteem instability felt worse about themselves in

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reaction to that day’s negative events than did those with more stable self-concepts. Similarly,

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Chang and Arkin (2002) observed that people chronically high in self-doubt are vulnerable to

events that heighten their feelings of uncertainty, while those low in self-doubt are more resilient.

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When the self is threatened (for example, by an unpleasant event or by reminders of a

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self-discrepancy), self-protective impulses come into play and the individual strives to restore the

sense of self that has been threatened or damaged. Extensive research in self-esteem maintenance
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shows that people handle identity threat by enhancing or affirming their identity, either in the

self-concept domain that was threatened or in some other, unrelated domain (Heine, Proulx, &
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Vohs, 2006). One way to restore self-concept after a threat is to acquire a product that bolsters

the threatened element of the self (Gao, Wheeler, & Shiv, 2009). More specifically in the context
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of materialism, Dittmar and Bond (2010) found that reminding materialistic people of their self-
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discrepancies increased their desire to purchase products with high identity expressive potential.
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Threats to self and response. As shown in many studies, purchasing is a preferred way

for materialists to enhance or repair their identity. Dittmar and colleagues addressed identity

enhancement motivations for purchases in general (across products and brands) by assessing the

extent to which people buy things to make themselves feel more like their ideal self or to gain

prestige. They found strong associations between these identity-related motives and materialism

(Dittmar & Kapur, 2011; Dittmar, Long, & Bond, 2007; see also Donnelly et al., 2013). At the

brand level, people who incorporate brands into their sense of self and choose brands that
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reinforce their identity are also higher than others in materialism (Flynn et al., 2016; Sprott,

Czellar, & Spangenberg, 2009; see also Rindfleisch et al., 2009).

The most direct evidence that materialists use products for identity purposes comes from

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research on transformation expectations, in which people report how their life would be changed

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by the purchase of a specific item. Materialists are noteworthy in the extent to which they believe

that a desired purchase would transform the self, both in terms of the way others would see the

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respondent and the respondent’s own self-perceptions (Richins, 2011, 2013).

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Responses to specific threats. Research has documented how people use goods to

respond to specific threats to the self. This section describes responses to powerlessness and
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social comparison threats. A third threat to self, social exclusion, is discussed in the section

below on interpersonal relationships. Power is the ability to influence other people and control
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valued resources in social relationships (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). Materialists

value power more than others do, making it a more central component of their self-concept (e.g.,
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Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002; Gatersleben et al., 2010; Pepper, Jackson, & Uzzell, 2009).
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However, daily events, such as having to give in to a spouse in an argument or wait for a friend
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who is chronically late, can create a sense of powerlessness. Two ways that people respond to

loss of power is to purchase utilitarian goods that enable them to exert more control over the

environment (Chen, Lee, & Yap, 2017), and to purchase high status goods, which in themselves

denote power (Lee & Shrum, 2012; Rucker, Galinsky, & Dubois, 2012). Materialists, who place

a high value on both power and acquisition, may be more likely to make such purchases in

response to powerlessness than others. Thus, we can see that small daily threats to power can

reinforce materialistic tendencies among people who are already so inclined.

Social comparison can also threaten the self, and daily life provides many opportunities
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to compare oneself with others. People compare themselves to those they know, to strangers, and

to actors and models in media. Social media comparisons have become ubiquitous and a constant

occurrence for many (Marder, Houghton, Joinson, Shankar, & Bull, 2016). These comparisons

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can affect a person’s self-views, at least temporarily. When people make upward comparisons

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with others who are superior, they feel deficient; when they compare with those less

accomplished, they feel good about themselves.

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Self-concept instability is implicated in social comparison processes in two ways. Those

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who are less certain in their self-concept make more comparisons (Butzer & Kuiper, 2006), and

the self-views of those with unstable self-concepts are more likely to be influenced when social
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comparison occurs (Pelham & Wachsmuth, 1995). Materialists’ self-concept uncertainty

predisposes them to more frequent and more impactful social comparisons (Kim et al., 2016;
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Krekels & Pandelaere, 2015) and makes them especially vulnerable to daily social comparisons.

Materialists may compare themselves to others on many personal dimensions, but


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because they rely on goods to define the self, they may be especially vigilant about comparing
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possessions. Media contain many idealized images involving possessions, and friends on social
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media tend to manage their presentation of self in the most positive way possible (Hogan, 2010).

Accordingly, most social comparisons are upward (Richins, 1995). The result is self-discrepancy

that the materialist, with a less stable sense of self, will feel compelled to address. Mandel,

Petrova, and Cialdini (2006) found that social comparison with a similar but more successful

other increased study participants’ desire for luxury goods, and this enhanced desire for

acquisition in response to social comparison is likely to be especially strong among materialists.

Escapism. The responses to daily events and self-discrepancies described above involve

consumers actively trying to manage the damage incurred from threats. However, individuals
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sometimes cannot actively manage the effects of a threat, or choose not to. In such situations,

they may turn to escapism, activities whose goal is to distract from self-discrepancies and that

are often hedonic in nature. Watching television, sports participation, and playing games with

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one’s children can all be forms of escape that distract from the unpleasantness of the day.

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Sometimes, escape involves shopping and buying. Because materialists are so strongly

focused on goods and their acquisition, they are more likely than others to engage in this form of

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escape. For example, a study of Israelis under threat from terrorist attack found that high

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materialists were more likely to engage in excessive purchasing than those lower in materialism

(Ruvio et al., 2014). Escape may also involve daydreaming or fantasizing about products, which
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materialists do more often than others (d’Astous & Deschênes, 2005; Fournier & Guiry, 1993).

Donnelly, Ksendzova, Howell, Vohs, and Baumeister (2016) compile convincing evidence that
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materialists are vulnerable to escape and explain how this can increase their probability of

impulse purchasing and other forms of maladaptive consumption.


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Restoration and reinforcement. As outlined above, materialists are more vulnerable


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than others to daily threats to the self. These threats create an unpleasant psychological state that
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the individual is motivated to address—either by repairing the self-concept or by escapism.

Materialists, because of their strong belief in the transformative powers of goods, are more likely

than others to include product acquisition in their coping response to threats. These shopping

activities temporarily restore the self and remove the unpleasant psychological state. This in turn

reinforces belief in the transformative power of goods (because, indeed, acquisition did make the

person happier and did transform the self, at least for a time) and also reinforces materialistic

values and patterns of behavior.

The above elaboration of the reinforcement model shows how an unstable, insecure self
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involves the consumer in a cycle that perpetuates materialism. We now turn to another

characteristic materialists tend to possess—insecurity in their interpersonal relationships—and

examine how that characteristic also leads to reinforcing behavior.

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Insecure Interpersonal Relationships

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Materialists, on average, are more insecure in their interpersonal relationships than others.

They are higher in social anxiety (Chang & Arkin, 2002; Kashdan & Breen, 2007) and report

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having had higher levels of social insecurity during childhood (Richins & Chaplin, 2015). At the

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same time, for materialists, the judgments of other people matter. They score higher on measures

of need for social approval and fear of negative evaluation by others, and their personal identity
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is more dependent on others’ approval (Christopher & Schlenker, 2004; Rose & DeJesus, 2007).

Public self-consciousness—the extent to which people are concerned about the public impression
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they make and how others judge them—is higher among materialists (Richins & Dawson, 1990;

Rindfleisch et al., 2009; Xu, 2008). They also are more concerned with appearing successful and
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physically attractive to others (Netemeyer, Burton, & Lichtenstein, 1995). These concerns lead
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materialists to pay close attention to other people and their reactions, manifest in a higher social
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comparison tendency (Krekels & Pandelaere, 2015). Materialists are also heavier users of social

media and use their smart phones often throughout the day (Kamal, Chu, & Pedram, 2013;

Roberts & Pirog, 2013; Wallace, Buil, de Chernatony, & Hogan, 2014), providing themselves

with many opportunities to socially compare with others.

Perhaps because of their social insecurity, materialists tend to modify their behavior to

suit others. They score higher on measures of conformity, susceptibility to social influence, and

self-monitoring—the tendency to adapt one’s behaviors to fit a social situation (Chatterjee &

Hunt, 1996; Lastovicka, Bettancourt, Hughner, & Kuntze, 1999; Richins & Dawson, 1990;
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Saunders & Munro, 2000). They also actively manage how they appear to others, using a variety

of tactics to tailor their self-presentation (Christopher, Lasane, Troisi, & Park, 2007; Christopher,

Morgan, Marek, Keller, & Drummond, 2005).

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Despite materialists’ concerns about what others think of them, their interpersonal ties

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tend to be weaker. Relationship quality is lower for materialists (compared to others) when

relationship quality is evaluated by friends and family members (Solberg, Diener, & Robinson,

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2004). On average, they are lonelier than others (Gentina, Shrum, & Lowrey, in press; Pieters,

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2013) and feel more insecure about the relationships that they do have (Norris, Lambert, DeWall,

& Fincham, 2012; Rindfleisch et al., 2009). They have lower quality marital relationships and
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less stable marriages (Carroll, Dean, Call, & Busby, 2011) and are more likely to report that their

family obligations interfere with their work (Promislo, Deckop, Giacalone, & Jurkiewicz, 2010).
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Materialists’ interpersonal ties may be weaker, in part, because some of their personal
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qualities make it difficult for them to develop and sustain close relationships. They score higher
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than others on a “dark triad” of socially aversive personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism,
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and subclinical psychopathy (which includes low empathy) (e.g., Krekels & Pandelaere, 2015;
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Pilch & Górnik-Durose, 2016; Zerach, 2016). People scoring high on this triad are characterized

as manipulative and selfish and use an array of influence tactics to manipulate others for personal

gain (Jonason & Webster, 2012). Materialists also tend to be competitive (Stewart & Stewart,

2006) and prefer relationships in which they can dominate others (Kim & Kramer, 2015; Watson,

2016). They are higher in envy and nongenerosity, both of which can undermine relationships

(Krekels & Pandelaere, 2015; Richins & Dawson, 1992), and the conspicuous consumption

displays that many materialists engage in can alienate others (Shrum et al., 2014).

The social insecurity and weaker interpersonal ties of materialists, combined with their
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sensitivity to other people’s reactions to them, make them especially vigilant and vulnerable to

daily events and threats involving social relationships. Worry about the impression they make on

others, about fitting in, and whether they are being socially excluded or overlooked can take a

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psychological toll and result in unpleasant psychological states that can be alleviated by

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acquiring high status or socially approved products. For example, before buying, materialists

want to know what others think about the brand and whether the purchase will make a good

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impression (Fitzmaurice & Comegys, 2006; Lastovicka et al., 1999; Podoshen & Andrzejewski,

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2012). They also use purchasing as a way to be closer to others and gain acceptance (Rose &

DeJesus, 2007), and they expect the purchase of desirable products to transform the way they are
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viewed by others (Richins 2011).

Materialists also use goods to manage social exclusion. Exclusion, whether intentional or
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accidental, encourages people to turn to products in an effort to forge connection with the group

from which one has been excluded or to be noticed by group members (Lee & Shrum, 2012).
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Materialists, with their belief that acquisition will improve their relationships with others and the
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regard in which they are held (Richins, 2011, 2013), may be more likely than others to acquire
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products for this purpose.

This discussion described how insecurity in interpersonal relationships can perpetuate

materialism, in accordance with the model in Figure 3. Interpersonal insecurity makes

materialists sensitive to daily events in which they perceive they have fallen short of goals for

fitting in, making a favorable impression, and social inclusion. These perceived failures result in

an unpleasant psychological state that must be managed. For materialists—who believe that

acquisition can improve their social relationships and the way they are viewed by others—

acquiring goods that enhance social standing can be a preferred coping mechanism. To the extent
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they use purchasing in such situations and believe their purchases have been successful,

transformation expectations and materialism are reinforced.

Dispositional Unhappiness

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The third personal quality to be discussed in terms of the reinforcement model is

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dispositional unhappiness. The negative relationship between materialism and well-being has

attracted considerable attention from scholars, due in part, perhaps, to the irony that those who

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pursue the acquisition of goods as the route to happiness are, after all, less happy than those who

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do not. Materialists (compared to others) report more symptoms of depression (Claes et al.,

2010; Segev et al., 2015), have higher levels of anxiety (Otero-López & Villardefrancos, 2013a;
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Saunders & Munro, 2000), and experience more negative affect (Christopher, Saliba, &

Deadmarsh, 2009; Solberg et al., 2004). They tend to report lower life satisfaction overall and in
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specific life domains (e.g., La Barbera & Gürhan, 1997; Roberts & Clement, 2007). In short,

they are dispositionally less happy than low materialists.


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A meta-analysis by Dittmar, Bond, Hurst, and Kasser (2014) identified 102 samples in
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studies that assessed the correlation between material values and personal well-being (aggregate
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n = 31,844). The resulting average correlation was -.19. This meta-analysis shows that the

negative association between materialism and well-being is a robust one, but it is relatively weak,

with materialism accounting for less than 4% of the variation in well-being.

Although the evidence for a negative relationship between materialism and well-being is

consistent, the nature of this relationship is not well understood. It is possible that materialism

causes lower well-being, possibly because materialistic preoccupations can divert people from

investing in the things most essential for happiness (Kasser, 2002). Alternatively, materialism

might not be the cause, but rather the result, of lower well-being. People who are unhappy may
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focus on goods and their acquisition to reduce anxiety, enhance self-esteem, compensate for

feelings of powerlessness, or to otherwise temporarily improve their self-feelings. A third

possibility is that some other extraneous factor affects both well-being and materialism, creating

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a non-causal relationship between these two variables. Longitudinal studies provide evidence

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relevant to these three alternative explanations (Kasser et al., 2014; Opree et al., 2013; Pieters,

2013). This evidence is well-covered by Shrum et al. (2014), who conclude that the findings are

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mixed and that a bi-directional model may best explain the relationship. That is, materialism may

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decrease well-being, while at the same time lower well-being encourages materialistic pursuits.

Although the association between dispositional unhappiness and materialism is not


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especially strong, the effect of this association may be amplified by the fact that materialists tend

to be lower in emotional stability (e.g., Donnelly, Iyer, & Howell, 2012; Mowen & Spears, 1999;
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Otero-López & Villardefrancos, 2013b). The greater fluidity of their emotional states, combined

with a predisposition to be less happy in the first place, is likely to make materialists more
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emotionally responsive (vulnerable) to daily events and more prone to experiencing negative
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affect as a result. Because materialists believe that acquisition increases happiness, they are more
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likely than others to turn to acquisition as a way to remove this negative affect.

Two lines of research indicate that materialists do indeed use shopping for mood

regulation and repair. First, studies show that materialists are more likely to report that buying

things puts them in a better mood and that shopping is fun and exciting (e.g., Dittmar & Kapur,

2011; Dittmar et al., 2007; Donnelly et al., 2013). However, it’s impossible to conclude from

these studies that mood management is actually a motivation for buying, as none of these studies

asked if changing one’s mood is the goal of a purchase. Other research (Somer & Ruvio, 2014)

found that materialists are more likely to go shopping to escape into a different world or to
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35

improve their mood, but did not assess buying motivations.

Studies of self-gifts provide more direct support for the idea that materialists buy things

for mood enhancement. McKeage (1992) asked people how likely they would be to give

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themselves a self-gift in each of several hypothetical situations. The association between self-

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gifting likelihood and materialism was highest for the situation in which the respondent was

feeling depressed. In a later study that examined actual past self-gift behavior, materialists

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(compared to others) were more likely to report that they had given themselves gifts to cheer

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themselves up (McKeage, Richins, & Debevec, 1993). Taken together, these two lines of

research lend credence to the idea that mood regulation is an important buying motivation for
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materialists. To the extent these mood regulation efforts are successful, they will reinforce belief

in the transformative power of goods and confirm materialistic values and tendencies.
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The preceding discussion illustrates how the reinforcement model of materialism can

explain the role of dispositional unhappiness in perpetuating materialism. Dispositional


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unhappiness increases vulnerability to daily events, creating unpleasant affective states that
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materialistic people are inclined to manage by product acquisition. These purchases temporarily
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lift the buyer’s mood, confirming belief in the transformational properties of goods and

reinforcing material values.

Other Outcomes of the Reinforcement Cycle

The reinforcement model in Figure 3 describes processes that perpetuate materialism and

belief in the transformative powers of things. It also sheds light on two behaviors associated with

materialism: impulse spending and credit overuse.

Many studies show that materialists are more likely than others to buy impulsively (e.g.,

Mick, 1996; Podoshen & Andrzejewski, 2012; Ruvio et al., 2014). Materialists also tend to be
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36

more impulsive generally (Pirog & Roberts, 2007; Roberts & Pirog, 2013; Rose, 2007). Their

impulsive buying, however, is somewhat selective: materialists who experience a deficit in self-

identity don’t want to delay acquisition of goods that help them address this deficit, but do not

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exhibit the same impatience to acquire other goods (Dittmar & Bond, 2010). Given that

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materialists use acquisition to manage unpleasant psychological states that arise during daily life,

it makes sense that they are higher in impulsive purchasing. These unpleasant states arise on an

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unplanned but possibly frequent basis and can be quite aversive, demanding immediate attention,

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so acquisition to relieve these unpleasant states will also be unplanned.

For some materialists, impulsive tendencies get out of control and buying becomes a
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compulsion. Dozens of studies have documented the relationship between materialism and

compulsive buying, and some have attempted to understand the processes that mediate this
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relationship. A detailed analysis of this literature is beyond the scope of this article, but notable

studies include Desarbo and Edwards (1995), Dittmar et al. (2007), and Ruvio et al. (2014).
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Another outcome of the perpetuation process relates to how materialists use money. First,
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they are less satisfied with their income or standard of living (Christopher, Marek, & Carroll,
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2004; Roberts & Clement, 2007), despite the fact that household income is equivalent for low

and high materialism consumers. To the extent that materialists use acquisitions to enhance and

display their self-concepts and to manage unpleasant psychological states, it seems reasonable

that they would see a greater need for monetary resources.

With respect to the money that they do have, materialists tend to be present-focused,

rather than future-oriented (Nye & Hillyard, 2013). Accordingly, they tend to spend their money

quickly (Garðarsdóttir & Dittmar, 2012; Watson, 2003) and are less frugal (Lastovicka et al.,

1999; Pepper et al., 2009; Troisi, Christopher, & Marek, 2006). Materialists also report more
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difficulty in controlling their spending (Rick, Cryder, & Loewenstein, 2008) and tend to misuse

credit more than other consumers (Pirog & Roberts, 2007; Richins, 2011; Watson, 2003).

Two explanations suggest why materialists might have more problems than others in

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managing their credit (and with impulsive purchasing, as well). First, when a person is sad,

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willingness to pay a high price for a desired item increases (e.g., Lerner, Small, & Loewenstein,

2004). This is particularly true when the purchaser is self-focused during the shopping

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experience (Cryder, Lerner, Gross, & Dahl, 2008), which is likely to be the case when someone

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is smarting from an untoward event earlier in the day. Second, Kim (2013) has shown that in

making decisions, concrete thoughts (e.g., how much happier one would feel by making a
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purchase) tend to crowd out or overwhelm more abstract or distant ones (such as the importance

of saving money), which can lead to self-control failure. An interesting result of Kim’s study is
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that self-control failure occurred only for study participants who had an extrinsic goals

orientation, which is correlated with materialism (e.g., Elphinstone & Critchley, 2016).
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Summarizing, the more materialistic one is, the more vulnerable a person will be to daily
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events, and the more likely it is that the individual will have a self-control failure resulting in
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unplanned (often unnecessary) purchases intended to relieve a psychologically unpleasant state.

The result is stress on the family budget and credit overuse.

General Discussion

Reducing Materialism

Because of its negative correlates and outcomes, there is considerable interest in ways to

reduce a person’s materialism. The two frameworks presented in this paper provide insight into

the types of interventions that could be most effective.

Implications from the developmental model. The developmental model (Figure 2)


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38

provides insights into how materialism might be prevented from developing in the first place.

Because the processes described in this model occur during childhood, parents are the most

effective intervention agents. The most obvious place for parents to have an impact on

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materialism is in the resources component of the daily event cycle. To the extent that parents

foster development of intangible resources and limit a child’s access to tangible resources, they

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will help their child learn to rely on intangible resources when managing daily events. Over time,

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this will help the child develop a more secure sense of self that will reduce the inclination to rely

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on things to create self-identity and manage peer relationships. Where parents are unable to

provide support for resource development due to low income or difficult work schedules, schools
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can step in and offer after-school programs that focus on intangible resource development.

Another way that parents can intervene in the daily event cycle is to influence, to the
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extent possible, the daily events in which a child participates. Encouraging participation in

events that boost the child’s confidence in his/her intangible resources and that don’t rely on
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tangible resources for success will help a child learn to use his/her resource assortment in a way
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that decreases the chances of developing materialistic tendencies.


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Third, parents can sometimes help children interpret the outcomes of daily events in non-

materialistic ways. It’s natural for a child to feel inferior after being teased for wearing the wrong

brand of sneakers, but a parent can offer alternative viewpoints, such as explaining that some

kids tease because they aren’t self-confident and are being mean just to make themselves feel

better. This probably won’t stop a child from wanting new sneakers, but the cumulative impact

of these explanations can provide the child with a greater understanding of peers’ motivations

and limitations and enable them to put social interactions into a broader context.

Fourth, parents can decrease a child’s chance of being materialistic, and increase the
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39

likelihood of many positive life outcomes, through supportive parenting. Children of supportive

parents have a stronger sense of self and are lower in materialism (Chaplin & John, 2010).

Finally, parents can influence children’s values by how they themselves interact with

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products. Children learn values in part by observing their parents’ values in action (Parke &

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Buriel, 2008). A parent who manages his mood by buying a gadget, or who buys a new dress to

impress a rival at work, teaches the child to believe that acquisition has transformative power.

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Although most adults do these things occasionally, consistently relying on acquisition in these

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ways encourages a materialistic mindset in children.

Implications from the perpetuation model. Reducing materialism in adults, in whom


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values are already established, is likely to be a more difficult task than preventing it in the first

place. However, the reinforcement model in Figure 3 suggests two points at which the cycle that
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perpetuates materialism might be broken, or at least slowed down. The first point of intervention

would be to reduce one’s vulnerability to daily threats. Thus, developing a stronger and more
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stable sense of self, improving the security of one’s interpersonal relationships, and finding ways
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to neutralize dispositional unhappiness would prevent the perpetuation cycle from being initiated.
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The second possibility is for a materialist to learn to deal with unpleasant psychological

states without relying on acquisition. This is a complex topic in its own right and worthy of

further investigation by consumer behavior scholars, social psychologists, and clinical

psychologists. Alternatively, simply learning to delay the purchase as long as possible after the

onset of the unpleasant affect might be helpful. If the delay is long enough, the negative affect

may dissipate on its own. Delay also increases the chance that the unhappy individual will

stumble upon an alternative coping strategy that doesn’t involve purchase. Giving up credit cards

would necessarily increase purchase latency for some people.


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40

Unfortunately, changing most adult behaviors and values is not easily accomplished, and

that is true for materialism as well. The psychological and behavioral changes required for the

interventions described above to be successful seem exceedingly difficult for individuals to make

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and may not be achievable for some people without lengthy counseling and extended practice.

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Future Research

This review and the proposed frameworks synthesize much of the literature on

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materialism and provide a broad framework for how materialism is created in children and

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perpetuated in adults. However, these broad frameworks encompass several component

processes, and the details concerning many of these components remain to be fleshed out by
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additional research. A few suggestions are provided below.

First, additional analysis of environmental influences is needed. Prior research has


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examined the correlation between materialism and such environmental variables as television

exposure and family circumstances, but results have been weak and sometimes equivocal. The
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developmental model suggests new approaches to such investigations by examining the


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relationship of environmental variables to specific developmental processes described in the


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model, rather than looking only at the materialism outcome variable. As noted earlier, the model

suggests several points at which environmental and family factors have the potential to influence

these processes. In terms of media influences specifically, one improvement would be to use

finer grained analyses that look at the effects of exposure to specific programming or social

media content rather than treating media exposure in a monolithic way. Additional research on a

greater variety of parenting and family variables, beyond those previously studied, would also be

beneficial in understanding materialism, particularly if the research ties parenting practices to

developmental processes rather than to just the materialism outcome.


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41

Research into the role of daily events in materialism processes is also needed, in the

context of both the developmental and the reinforcement models. There is a strong tradition of

experimental studies that manipulate simulated daily events or experiences among young adults

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(e.g., social exclusion, powerlessness). These types of experiments can help determine which

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types of daily events and which types of psychological states are most likely to result in

materialistic responses. Such experiments can also identify factors or interventions that might

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mitigate materialistic responses, such as the provision of emotional support from a peer,

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opportunities to reaffirm the self in non-materialistic ways, and distraction.

An alternative to using experimental methods would be daily event “autopsies,” in which


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respondents are asked to report in detail about a specific recent event to identify precipitating

circumstances, resources applied to manage the event, event outcomes, affective and
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psychological states associated with outcomes (both positive or negative), and how the

respondent reacted to those states. This approach doesn’t require experimental manipulation and
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thus may be especially useful in studying daily event effects among adolescents.
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A third area of needed work is further development of the two models described in this
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review. Although the models incorporate what’s known about materialism, there are no doubt

additional factors and processes to be discovered and integrated. A related area of inquiry would

be to examine how materialism develops and is perpetuated in developing economies. The

present models address materialism in Western economically advanced countries. But given the

importance of materialism and associated consumption processes throughout the world, an

understanding of which of the processes and factors identified here are relevant in other countries,

and what additional processes may come into play, would be extremely useful.

Fourth, research is needed to identify and test interventions that reduce the chances of a
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42

child developing materialistic values in the first place, and interventions that reduce materialism

or its negative effects in adulthood. As noted earlier, the two models provide insight into where

interventions are most likely to be effective and suggest what these interventions might look like.

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Additional ideas for interventions, and empirical tests of intervention effectiveness, would be

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useful in mitigating the negative effects of materialism on individuals and the environment.

Finally, research on the materialistic consumption of experiences is needed. Shrum et al.

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(2013) have suggested that experiences can be used in a materialistic way just as goods are: that

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is, some people consume experiences to define the self, judge success in life, and impress others.

This tendency has been termed experientialism by Smith and Lutz (1996). Young people’s
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sometimes excessive focus on display of their culinary, athletic, and travel experiences on social

media suggests that experientialism is becoming a defining force for many, with possibly some
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of the same negative correlates as materialism. Further research into this phenomenon is needed,

along with assessment of the extent to which the frameworks described in this review apply to
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this form of consumption as well as to materialism.


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This review revealed hundreds of papers concerning materialism, but the majority of
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them reported basic correlational studies in which some independent variable was correlated with

materialism as the dependent variable. Fewer studies examined underlying processes that involve

materialism. One reason for this is the lack of a clear and detailed explication of the processes

that lead to materialism. While the two frameworks described in this paper are still works in

progress, it is hoped that they prove useful in stimulating more process oriented research that

further enhances understanding of how materialism develops, is perpetuated, and eventually,

how harmful effects of materialism can be reduced.


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Figure 1: Model Overview: Development of Materialism

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Figure 2. Developmental Model of Materialism; Detailed View

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Figure 3. Materialism Reinforcement Cycle

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