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JOURNAL OF

ELSEVIER Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

Materialism and economic psychology


Marsha L. Richins *7a,Floyd W. Rudmin b
a School of Business and Public Administration, linit,ersity of Missouri, Middlebush Hall,
Columbia, MO 6521 I, USA
h Faculty of law, Queens UniL:ersity,Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3NG

Received July 26, 1993; accepted March 28, 1994

Abstract

This article argues that materialism is a variable relevant to many aspects of economic
psychology. The definition and measurement of materialism arc briefly reviewed, followed
by a discussion of the potential relationships between materialism and several economic
variables, including use of money, work motivation, giving, and material satisfaction. The
paper concludes with a discussion of the use of economic goods in social communication
and the potential role of materialism in such communication.

1. Introduction

Although materialism has long been a topic of social and philosophical


concern, only recently has it become a topic within economic psychology.
This is probably because the traditional discourse on materialism has been
too broad, too normative, and too philosophical to allow empirical hypoth-
esis testing, particularly at the psychological level. However, economic
psychology often involves examining the effects of individual difference
variables on economic behavior, and materialism should not be overlooked

* Corresponding author. Tel.: (314) 882-0280, Fax: (314) 882-0365, E-mail: marketmr@mizzoul.mis-
souri.edu

0167-4870/94/$07.00 0 1994 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved


&SD1 0167-4870(94)00012-Y
218 M.L. Richins. F. W Rudmin /Journal of Erorlomic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

as a variable of importance. Materialism, perhaps more than any other


variable, describes an individual’s real and desired relationship with eco-
nomic goods. It is closely tied to the satisfactions one derives from the
acquisition and possession of goods and is related to the intensity and the
manner by which one pursues economic objectives. In addition, more than
other values or personality traits, materialism is uniquely identified with
consumption. Thus, it is a phenomenon worthy of investigation for its own
sake.
The objective of this article is to increase scholars’ recognition of the
relevance of materialism to the study of economic psychology. It reviews
the construct of materialism and identifies selected writings concerning the
construct. In the course of review, numerous links between materialism and
economic psychology are described or hypothesized.

1.1. Defining materialism

The terms ‘materialism’ and ‘materialistic’ are often used without defini-
tion. In philosophical usage, materialism originally referred to the notion
that nothing exists except matter and its movements (see, for instance,
Lange, 1865/1925). In popular usage, materialism more often refers to a
‘devotion to material needs and desires, to the neglect of spiritual matters;
a way of life, opinion, or tendency based entirely upon material interests’
(Oxford English Dictionary, 1989, Vol. 9, p. 466). Belk (1985, p. 2651
defines materialism as ‘the importance a consumer attaches to worldly
possessions’, while Bredemeier and Toby (1960, p. 77) refer to it as ‘the
worship of things’. When large segments of a society avidly desire to
consume goods for reasons that economists have traditionally defined as
nonutilitarian (e.g., status seeking, novelty), a ‘consumer culture’ is said to
exist (Belk, 1988; Fox and Lears, 1983). Although the philosophical usage
of the term ‘materialism’ is generally considered to be distinct from the
popular usage, materialistic consumers do rely on physical (material) pos-
sessions to manifest and perceive otherwise invisible personal characteris-
tics such as happiness, status, and social competence. This reliance on
material objects for meaning is reminiscent of the philosophical use of the
term.
A review of theoretical and lay conceptions of materialism suggests that
materialism involves at least three important elements (Fournier and
Richins, 1991; Richins and Dawson, 1992). First, materialists place posses-
M. L. Rich&, F. UC Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 1.5 (IY94,i 217-231 219

sions and their acquisition at the center of their lives. Daun (1983)
describes materialism as a way of life in which a high level of material
consumption functions as a goal and serves as a set of plans. Csikszentmi-
halyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981, p. 231) note the dominance materialism
can achieve in one’s life, suggesting that for some materialists, ‘consump-
tion for the sake of consumption becomes a fever that consumes all the
potential energy it can get access to’. (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Hal-
ton also describe in detail the positive roles that possessions play in
individuals’ lives, such as providing meaning and enabling a fuller unfolding
of human life. They refer to such uses of possessions as an instrumental
form of materialism. However, since this use of the term ‘materialism’ is
not consistent with more common usage both in popular and theoretical
writings, it is not employed here.)
Second, possessions and acquisition are viewed by materialists as essen-
tial to their satisfaction and well-being in life. Belk (1985, p. 265) notes that
for materialistic individuals ‘possessions ... are believed to provide the
greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction’ in life. According to
Looft (19711, materialists believe that expanded levels of consumption lead
to increases in the amount of pleasure obtained. While most individuals
care deeply about their own happiness, it is the single-minded pursuit of
happiness through acquisition or possession rather than through other
means that distinguishes materialism,
The third element of materialism involves the tendency of materialists to
judge their own and others’ success by the number and quality of posses-
sions accumulated. The value of possessions stems partly from their ability
to confer status (Mason, 1981; Veblen, 1899/1953) and also from their
ability to project a desired self-image and identify one as a participant in an
imagined perfect life (Campbell, 1987). Materialists view themselves and
others as successful to the extent they can possess products that project
these desired images. The use of possessions in forming impressions of
others and projecting images of the self is addressed later in this article.

1.2. Measuring materialism

Empirical research on materialism was rare and sporadic until the mid
1980’s. In part this reflected a lack, until recently, of appropriate measures
of the construct. For purposes of economics-oriented research, it is useful
to think of materialism measurement from two perspectives, depending on
the goal and context of the research.
220 M.L. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

Individual level analysis


Many studies have attempted to examine materialism as an individual
difference variable. One might, for instance, examine the relationship
between individuals’ level of materialism and their spending habits, work
motivation, and the like. Several different measures have been used in
individual analysis (see Richins and Dawson, 1992, for a review), but only
two are based on psychometric principles. Belk (19851 developed measures
of envy, possessiveness, and nongenerosity - three traits associated with
materialism. Several researchers have used the summation of these three
scales as a measure of materialism (e.g., Belk, 1985; Hunt et al., 1990;
Rudmin, 19881. Richins and Dawson (1990, 19921 use a different approach.
Rather than using personality traits to infer level of materialism, they
assess materialism more directly by measuring the three characteristics of
materialism described above: acquisition centrality, acquisition as the pur-
suit of happiness, and possession-defined success.

Cultural analysis
A second research perspective attempts to assess the level of materialism
within a culture for purposes of comparing different cultures or tracing
materialism levels over time. Two separate approaches have been used. In
a very extensive series of studies, Inglehart (e.g., 1977, 1990) has attempted
to identify post-materialistic societies, in which individuals emphasize such
values as belonging and self-expression instead of material possessions. In
his surveys, administered primarily in Europe, he lists 12 goals and classi-
fies respondents as possessing materialist or post-materialist values by the
social goals they choose as most important. The second approach to
measuring materialism at a cultural level is content analysis. For example,
Belk and Pollay (198.5) used content analysis to examine materialistic
themes in print advertising in the U.S. between 1900 and 1980. Tse et al.
(19891 used content analysis to compare consumption values in advertise-
ments in Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan.

1.3. The effects of materialism

Materialism has had both positive and negative impacts on cultures,


economies, and individuals. The industrial revolution and the success of
capitalistic modes of production is said to be due in part to the Protestant
work ethic and the purposeful pursuit of wealth with which it eventually
came to be associated (Weber, 1904-05/1958). Although some have sug-
ML.. Rich&s, F. W Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 21 T-231 221

gested that the traditional work ethic has eroded in recent decades among
some segments of the population (Albee, 1977; Howard and Wilson, 1982;
see, however, Furnham, 1990, Ch. 71, materialism can still be said to have a
positive impact on economies. The desire for goods on the part of
(materialistic) workers may cause them to work harder or longer, enhanc-
ing their incomes and standard of living (Cherrington, 1980; Schor, 1991).
High levels of consumption by (materialistic) consumers can increase the
wealth of business institutions, increasing their ability to make capital
improvements and invest in research and development, which in turn leads
to greater productivity, technological breakthroughs, and again, higher
living standards.
There are negative consequences of materialism as well. For centuries,
religious leaders have warned of the spiritual hazards of materialism (see
Belk, 1983; Rudmin and Kilbourne, in press), and others have described
the harm to interpersonal relationships it may cause (e.g., Fromm, 1976).
More recently, materialism has been criticized for its negative impact on
the earth’s resources. Unbridled materialism uses natural resources at an
unnecessarily high rate and contributes to pollution and the destruction of
habitat and species (Durning, 1991; Hirsch, 1978; Meadows et al., 1972;
Worster, 1993).
Concerns have also been raised about the interaction between material-
ism and social systems. In the U.S. and Western Europe, there is growing
recognition that economic resources are more strained than previously
thought. Lower rates of job growth have combined with increasing de-
mands on those resources due to political reorganization, demographic
changes, rising health costs, and increased social welfare demands. The
result is that many societies are no longer economically capable of sustain-
ing a materialistic ideal. Standards of living are not likely to rise as they
have in the past; for many, they have declined. It has been suggested that
the inability of individuals to achieve their materialistic ideal contributes
(in part) to disturbances in social systems. These disturbances may include
excessive personal debt and increasing personal bankruptcy rates, dissatis-
faction and resentment among ordinary citizens, increases in property
crimes, and intolerance of immigrants and other out-group members.
Materialism and consumer culture are not limited to the developed
economies of Western Europe and North America but have been docu-
mented in a variety of Third World countries (Blair, 3965; Lewis, 1973;
Yellen, 1985). Belk (1988) describes some of the negative consequences of
the increasing materialism and desire for Western goods in these cultures.
222 M.L. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

These consequences include the devaluation of locally produced goods


(upon whose production local economies may depend) and a reduction in
the consumption of necessities so that luxuries and status goods may be
obtained.

2. Materialism and economic variables

As the preceding discussion indicates, there are important links between


materialism and economic behavior. The following discussion examines in
more detail the specific economic variables that may be related to material-
ism. Relevant research is cited, and suggestions are made concerning how
materialism may be incorporated in future research on the topics described
below.

2.1. Money

Although materialists are believed to value possessions for a variety of


reasons, money is the currency which enables one to acquire. Thus, one can
expect materialistic people to have a different relationship with money
from those who are low in materialism. One way they are expected to differ
is in the amount of money they need or desire. Wachtel and Blatt (19901,
studying college students, found only weak relationships between desired
income and traits associated with materialism. Richins and Dawson (19921,
however, measured material values in a broader cross-section of the
population and found a strong relationship between materialism and de-
sired income: the income deemed necessary to satisfy needs was about 50
percent higher for consumers high in materialism than for those low in
materialism.
Low and high materialists are also likely to differ in the meaning money
holds for them and in money-related attitudes. While the relationship
between materialism and these variables has apparently not been investi-
gated, the logical relationship between materialism and money attitudes,
and the existence of a variety of appropriate measures (e.g., Furnham,
1984; Wernimont and Fitzpatrick, 1972; Yamauchi and Templer, 19821,
suggest this would to be a fruitful area of inquiry.

Spending
Because acquisition is important to materialists, and materialists more
than others view their possessions as indicators of their own success in life,
ML. Richins, F. W Rudrnin /.Journal of EcunomicPsychology I5 (19943 217-231 223

they are likely to spend their money in different ways than those low in
materialism. Two studies have examined materialism and expenditures,
although the expenditures have been hypothetical. Belk (1985) found that
high materialism respondents are more likely than low materialism respon-
dents to report they would buy luxuries if they were unexpectedly given
$100. Richins and Dawson (1992) allowed their respondents a hypothetical
windfall of $lO,~OO and examined planned expenditures in six categories.
High and low materialism respondents differed in four of the six types of
expenditures, with high materialism respondents spending as much as three
times more than low materialism respondents in some cases. Studies of
actual expenditure patterns (e.g., Lunt and Livingstone, 1992) would more
clearly show the influence of materialistic values on spending practices.
A related research topic concerns compulsive shopping. O’Guinn and
Faber (1989) found relationships between compulsive, opt-of-control shop-
ping and personality traits such as envy (which has been linked to material-
ism), while Hanley and Wilhelm (1992) studied compulsive buying and
money attitudes. This is a promising area for inquiry. While critics have
blamed ‘rampant materialism’ for excessive debt and bankruptcy, empirical
studies testing this thesis have not yet been conducted.

Sauing and debt


Consumer saving and consumer debt are variables of considerable inter-
est in economic theory, and psychological variables are an important
(although under-researched) element in determining them (Katona, 1975;
Lea et al., 1993; Lunt and Livingstone, 1991; Wsrneryd, 1989). Since
materialism represents the centrality of possession and acquisition in
consumers’ lives, and since acquisition most often involves spending (which
is in direct opposition to saving), research and theoretical models concern-
ing savings and debt might profitably include materialism as a variable.

2.2. Work motivation and behavior

The desire to obtain (more> goods is widely credited as an important


motivation for work. Materialists have a stronger desire than others for
goods, and thus can be expected to work more or strive for higher paying
jobs. Schor (1991) has analyzed work and leisure hours in the United
States, a country often described as particularly materialistic. She found
that in the last two decades the work time of Americans of all gender and
income groups has substantially increased, despite productivity gains that
224 M.L. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

have allowed the United States to achieve one of the highest material
standards of living in the world. This increase in work stands in sharp
contrast to European economies in which work hours have declined. In
Schor’s analysis, an important cause of increasing work and declining
leisure among Americans is their materialistic values.
Given the presumed role of materialism in work motivation, research
documenting and elaborating this relationships is warranted. For instance,
there appears to be some tension in the relationship between materialism
and work. The traditional (Protestant) work ethic values work for its own
sake and for its social contributions (see Furnham, 1990, for a comprehen-
sive review), while the materialist is more instrumental in his/her approach
to work, valuing work primarily for the buying power it provides. It is
possible that this instrumental orientation involves a denigration of work
itself. Some evidence of this is provided in a study by Belk (1989). He asked
college students to report their liking of comic book characters with which
they were familiar. Using content analysis procedures, some of the charac-
ters were classified as consumption heroes (hard working, intelligent, and
unselfish) and some as consumption villains (greedy spendthrifts who
obtain wealth through luck, crime, or magic instead of hard work). Materi-
alistic students tended to like the consumption villains (and dislike the
more traditional consumption heroes), while the opposite was true for
students low in materialism. This finding suggests that materialism is linked
with work attitudes; it may be a useful variable in modeling the relationship
between work attitudes and various work behaviors.

2.3. Giving

The humane operation of societies and economies requires sharing or


other methods to redistribute wealth. Two forms of this behavior relevant
to economists are tax contributions and charitable contributions. While the
research on the topic can be described as preliminary at best, it appears
that those high in materialism are less willing than their counterparts to
give to others. Studies suggest that materialists are less willing than
non-materialists to make organ donations (Belk and Austin, 19861, less
likely to share a cash windfall with others (Belk, 1985; Richins and Dawson,
19921, and less likely to make charitable contributions (Richins and Daw-
son, 1992).
Although tax contributions are generally considered non-voluntary, there
M.L. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231 225

are at least two respects in which individuals have some degree of choice
concerning the taxes they pay. In some economies, tax evasion and tax
avoidance are practiced by significant segments of society, and personal
values such as materialism and greed are likely to play some role in this
behavior. Second, in many political units, citizens have the opportunity to
vote on specific taxes directly affecting the social welfare of the locality.
These taxes may be used to improve a variety of public services such as
roads, schools, and sewage treatment facilities or to provide aid to disad-
vantaged members of the community. Research could assess whether the
self-interest of materialistic individuals makes them likely to favor only
those tax levies of direct personal benefit.

2.4. Material satisfaction and quality of life

The important goals of spending and consumption, from an economic


perspective, are utility, satisfaction, and improved quality of life. Through-
out the world, economic advancement is valued for its ability to improve
the quality of life. Some evidence suggests, however, that increased eco-
nomic well-being does not do a great deal to improve the happiness or life
satisfaction of a society at large (Diener, 1984; Easterlin, 1974; Inglehart
and Rabier, 1986; see, however, Lane, 1991, for a contrary view).
For individuals within a society, the expectation that owning more
possessions or achieving an increased standard of living will make one
happier appears to be unfounded. Several authors have noted that while
acquisitions or an increased income do enhance individuals’ satisfaction
temporarily, the pleasure from these improvements quickly wanes and
one’s satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) reverts to its previous level (Brickman
and Campbell, 1971; Inglehart and Rabier, 1986; Scitovsky, 1976; see also
Lane, 1991, Ch. 26). Materialistic individuals, who place possessions near
the center of their lives and who believe their happiness to depend on
possession and acquisition, tend to have lower levels of satisfaction with
their lives overall and especially with their standard of living (Belk, 1985;
Dawson and Bamossy, 1990; Richins, 1987; Richins and Dawson, 1992);
they also tend to have poorer social adjustment and mental health (Kasser
and Ryan, 1993). These considerations need to be brought to bear in
research assessing economic development in Third World countries or
when studying the effects of changing economic structures in Eastern
Europe and elsewhere.
226 M.L. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

3. Social communication and economic goods

Economic analysis often examines consumption from utilitarian, rational,


and functional points of view. One contribution of psychology and the
other social sciences is the recognition that consumption serves other
purposes as well. Douglas and Isherwood (1979) have persuasively argued
for recognition of the broader goals and meanings of consumption, includ-
ing the roles of possessions in defining one’s identity and in social commu-
nication. It is primarily the socially constructed meanings of these posses-
sions, rather than their ‘objective’ characteristics, that allow goods to
function in these ways. Although the two roles of identity formation and
social communication are intertwined (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 19341, for
clarity they are discussed separately below.

3.1. Identity

It is well recognized that one’s sense of self stems in part from the
possessions one owns (Braun and Wicklund, 1989; James, 1890; Mc-
Cracken, 1986; Simmel, 1900/1978). Although not tested empirically, it has
been suggested that materialists are more likely than others to define their
selves through possessions (Wright et al., 1992).
Several studies have examined the symbolic meanings of possessions as
they relate to identity (e.g., Dittmar, 1992; Furby, 1978; Richins, 1994b;
Wallendorf and Arnould, 1988). An emerging body of evidence suggests
that possessions have different meanings for those low and high in materi-
alism and that these individuals use possessions in different ways. Richins
(1994a), for instance, found that materialists are more likely to value
possessions for their status, appearance-related, and utilitarian meanings
while those low in materialism are more likely to derive value from a
possession’s symbolic ties with other individuals (e.g., gifts) or its potential
for hedonic satisfaction.
Collections are organized groups of possessions. Among other functions,
collections may be used by individuals to create or improve self-identity
(Beaglehole, 1932; Moulin, 1987; Rigby and Rigby, 1944). Collections have
been viewed by some scholars as a means of legitimizing acquisitiveness
(e.g., Clifford, 1985); thus, materialism may be associated both with the
intensity of the collecting motive and with the types (and meanings) of
objects collected.
ML. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology IS (1994) 217-231 227

3.2. Social co~~u~~catio~

An obvious example of the use of economic goods for social communica-


tion purposes is the exchange of gifts (Caplow, 1982; Cheal, 1988; Davis,
1972; Sherry, 1983). Gifts have a number of functions, including the
expression of feelings for the recipient and the strengthening of social ties.
Another use of gifts, in some cases, is to communicate aspects of the self
(both real and ideal) to others (Neisser, 19731. Materialistic individuals
place possessions at the center of their lives, and they use possessions to
judge their own success. To the extent they desire to communicate their
(actual or desired) status or success to others, materialists would be
motivated to give gifts whose meanings are consistent with this status. In
many cases the desired status communication might require the giving of
costly items, leading to the hypothesis that materialistic individuals would
give more expensive gifts, as an expression of their materialistic values,
than would those low in materialism. However, as noted earlier, materiaI-
ists seem unwilling to share their economic resources with others, leading
to the contrary conclusion that the gifts of materialistic individuals would
be more niggardly than the gifts given by others. Although gift-giving has
been linked empirically to some consumer values (Beatty et al., 19911, the
relationship between materialism and gift-giving has not yet been systemat-
ically examined.
The use of goods to communicate aspects of the self to others is not
limited to gift giving. People actively use a wide variety of socially-visible
economic goods to signal characteristics of their selves to others (Goffman,
1959; Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967; Mason, 1981). Clothing and cars are
two obvious examples of goods that are used in this way. Simultaneously,
observers decode the information contained in these objects to make
inferences, or social judgments, about the owner’s personal characteristics
(Dittmar, 1992; Holman, 1981). There is tentative evidence that the materi-
alism level of both owners and observers are implicated in these processes.
For instance, Richins (1994a) demonstrated that observers sometimes can
infer the materialism level of an individual from the kinds of possessions
that individual values. In addition, Dittmar and Pepper (1994) found that
observers’ level of materialism has at least some bearing on the outcomes
of this evaluation process, The effects of materialism on social judgments is
a potentially fruitful area of inquiry.
Of the many ways in which materialism may influence economic behav-
ior, only a few have been addressed here. However, it is hoped that this
228 M.L. Richins, F. W. Rudmin /Journal of Economic Psychology 15 (1994) 217-231

article successfully demonstrates some of the ways in which materialism is


important to economic psychology and that researchers in the future will be
more apt to consider its influence on the variables they study.

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