“In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.” Thorsten Veblen
A successful lawyer parked his brand new Porsche Carrera GT in front of the office, ready to show it off to his colleagues. As he goes to get out of the vehicle, a truck speeds by hitting the car and completely tearing off the driver’s door. Fortunately, a cop in a police car is close enough to see the accident and pulls up behind the Porsche. Before the cop has a chance to ask any questions, the lawyer starts screaming hysterically about how his Porsche, which he had just picked up the day before, now completely ruined. “The vehicle will never be the same, no matter how hard the repairers work to restore the damage.” After the lawyer finishes his rant, the cop shakes his head in disgust and disbelief. “I can’t believe how materialistic you lawyers are,” he said. “You are so focused on your possessions that you neglect the most important things in life.” “How can you say such a thing?” asked the lawyer. The cop replies, “Don’t you even realize that your left arm is missing? It got ripped off when the truck hit you!!!” “Oh, my God!” screams the lawyer. “My Rolex!!”
To the Unaware Life can be a Never Ending Game of Attainment and Display of Possessions
Amusing as this joke may be, for many, life is but a never ending game of attainment and display of possessions and wealth, in the hope this will bring us happiness. This game of displaying ones wealth has gone toward exploiting the earth’s resources on an unprecedented scale. While there have always been status symbols used throughout human history, highlighting wealth, power and prestige, current Western society has taken this to a new level. The use and consumption of certain products and services lends itself to exhibiting ‘Peacock’ like behaviour. Neil Strauss in his bestselling book, The Game, describes how ‘Peacock Theory’ is useful in helping to distinguish oneself from others. The ‘Peacock Theory’ is based on the mating ritual of the female peahens which are believed to choose their mates according to the size, colour, and quality of the feather trains they exhibit. Women traditionally use makeup, clothes, hairstyles, ornaments and body piercing to appear more attractive. Men tend to wear flashy shirts, bright hats or jewellery in an effort to attract attention from the opposite sex. While men have traditionally been more conservative than women in eliciting such behaviour, in recent decades this ‘Peacock’ culture has become more prominent throughout society.
Sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in 1899 to describe the behavioural characteristics of the new wealth which emerged after the Second Industrial Revolution. Marketers and the modern economy have woven ‘conspicuous consumption’ into almost every aspect of society. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was used to describe how individuals or families publicly manifested their social power and prestige through the possession of material goods or services purchased through wealth creation, be it real or perceived.
The 20th century has seen an epidemic of ‘conspicuous consumption’ occur throughout Western countries and economies. This culture is now increasingly infiltrating Eastern society and cultures. With improvements in standards of living and greater discretionary spending capacity of the middle classes, consumption has turned from intrinsic practical goods and services to encompass products and services motivated by prestige, status and the display of social ranking. Tim Jackson, in his book, Prosperity Without Growth, touches on the role conspicuous consumption plays in current society. “Social comparison – keeping up with the Joneses – rapidly expands the demand for successful products and facilitates mass production, making once luxury goods accessible to the many. It allows more and more people to go about inventing and reinventing their social identities in the search for a credible place in society.”
Behavioural Addiction Greed and Envy
It is interesting to note, conspicuous consumption can be classified as either as a behavioural addiction or as narcissistic behaviour or both. While advertisers persuade us that consumption can buy happiness, the true nature of a material driven culture is far different to the glossy advertisements which show happy and content citizens. The relationship between our mental state and materialism is complex. Researchers are still trying to ascertain whether materialism stokes unhappiness, unhappiness fuels materialism, or both. Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, dedicated a book to the subject, aptly named The High Price of Materialism. After extensive research into the link between materialism and the quality of our lives, he found, the more materialistic values we hold, the more our quality of life diminishes. When measuring materialistic values and well-being in samples of adolescents, college students and adults, the results showed a clear pattern of psychological (and physical) difficulties associated with holding wealth, popularity and image.
A former Wall Street trader penned an honest op-ed in the New York Times to share his thoughts on money and his former career: “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet.” The successful American investor Warren Buffett once said, “It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.” With envy and jealousy being one of the seven deadly sins it is easy to see why it has ramifications in our modern world and economies. Social comparison bias is having the feelings of aversion and competitiveness with others, be it physically or mentally.
Envy is closely related to social comparison bias and also stems from the feeling of lacking something, be they possessions, achievements or certain personal qualities. Not only does the vicious circle of envy and jealously drive us mad with striving to make more money, it can also lead us into the debt trap. Financial journalist Shira Boss, author of Why Keeping up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt, suggests the social side of our finances — a need to keep up with friends, neighbours and colleagues through expensive dinners, designer clothing and, yes, new cars is a huge contributor to high debt and a negative savings rate in the United States.
Intrinsic Values Promoting Social, Emotional and Ecological well-being have eroded
Our intrinsic values promoting social, emotional and ecological well-being have been eroded by the constant mantra of ‘go shopping.’ Not only has consumerism destroyed our levels of well-being, happiness and our social networks, it is has become a powerful driver for the demand for resources that is unrivaled in human history. Marketers tell us that having better relationships and experiences are dependent upon using their products over others. Marketers offer branding which provides people with choices. These choices give people the illusory feeling of freedom to make important decisions.
Psychologist Susan Linn, of the Harvard Medical School who wrote, Consuming Kids, argues consumerism and a materialistic focus has been driven by corporations seeking to tap into teen spending. “Comparing the marketing of today with the marketing of yesteryear is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb; it’s enhanced by technology, honed by child psychologists and brought to us by billions of dollars in the new millennium, marketing executives are insinuating their brands into the fabric of children’s lives. They want to use industry terms -‘cradle to grave’ brand loyalty and to ‘own’ children.” Companies market to adolescents and children with an annual budget of over $15 billion, or about two and a half times more than was spent in 1992. They now influence over $600 billion worth of spending.
Have we Reached Peak Consumerism?
With record levels of both personal and public debt plaguing most developed countries, it seems we may be approaching the peak of consumerism. At no other time in human history have we surrounded ourselves with so much stuff which adds so little to our levels of happiness and well-being. While our minds are filled with self-centred trivialities and distractions we have little time to contemplate the more important matters of the day such as equality, politics, economy and environmental matters. Private consumption expenditures for most Western nations range from 50% to 75% of GDP, making consumption the principle driver for most economic systems.7 This ethos has dominated most Western nations creating a self-perpetuating cycle of demand the mainstream media and corporations promote with gusto. The mantra of consumption, growth and consumerism dominate modern society.
Renowned sociologist Amitai Etzioni, professor of International Relations at George Washington University, sees the excesses of consumerism at the roots of our current economic troubles. “The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens, is a culture in which people will do almost anything to acquire the means to consume-working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess.”
Etzioni argues consumerism needs to be eradicated or greatly reduced as the obsession with acquisition has become the organising principle of American life. He is clear to outline this is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. He draws on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs to explain the difference. “As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs – safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, and education – it is not consumerism. When consumption turns to satisfying ego driven wants through the acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism – and consumerism becomes a social disease.”
Increased Consumerism is Highly Correlated with the Depletion of Earth’s Resources
The combination of envy and social comparison promoted by marketers has led to an exponential increase in conspicuous consumption. This increase in consumerism and materially driven lifestyles is highly correlated with the depletion of earth’s resources occurring over the last fifty odd years. The exponential expansion and use of fossil fuels combined with industrial technologies has seen status symbols and consumption move beyond what the ancient pharaohs and kings could have dreamed. Luxury cars and mansions, modern gadgetry and frequent international travel have become embedded into the psyche of many Western nations. Envy bias has driven consumerism and materialism in an effort to gain favour with the opposite sex, business colleagues or neighbours. Fueled by clever corporate marketing which taps into our psyche fostering the illusion of happiness through consumption, we have sort spiritual and emotional satisfaction through possessions and consumption.
This tendency towards seeking emotional satisfaction through conspicuous consumption can leave us feeling empty and discontent with our lives. Despite the accumulation of assets and wealth of extraordinary proportions we are still left wanting. This can lead to a vicious cycle of continual craving. We seek out short term gratification in an effort to appease our veracious appetite for material things. Hence, we make irrational decisions. These decisions not only impact us, but the planet, ecosystems and our very survival as a species.
Source: excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future
Cover Image: Torrenegra flickr