Researchers are trying to get a grip on materialism

April 02, 1992|By Jessica Seigel | Jessica Seigel,Chicago Tribune

The $1,575 Le Corbusier-style chair was an absolute must for his Chicago River North loft. The 29-year-old advertising copywriter also had to have the Armani eyeglasses, the Cartier watch and the Lichtenstein print.

His friends say he brags about his designer purchases. Behind his back, they call him a materialist. He vehemently denies the charge.

Can human nature explain why one person "needs" a Le Corbusier chair while others are content to sit on Grandma's hand-me-downs? Social scientists are beginning to study those kinds of needs as they investigate the psychology of materialism, which they define as the tendency to value things rather than people.

America is indeed more thing-oriented than other Western nations: Statistics show that we spend three to four times as many hours a week shopping as our European counterparts, according to Juliet Schor, author of "The Overworked American."

"Conventional social scientific theory doesn't explain why we care so much about objects," said Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who heads the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.

"Traditional theory focuses on ideas of greed, vanity and status. None of that allows you to explain the absolute grip that possessions have on our lives."

The new research mixes psychology, marketing and consumer behavior to explore the relationship people have with their things. More traditional psychology, in contrast, focuses on how people relate to other people.

"When I first proposed studying the psychology of possessions, a professor told me that wasn't worth a paper in an undergraduate seminar," said Floyd Rudmin, an assistant professor of social psychology at Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario. Mr. Rudmin edited a special 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, based in Corte Madera, Calif., devoted solely to possessions, ownership and property.

"Many psychologists still don't recognize it as a topic. But possessions and property dominate much of our life," he said.

"High materialists are not only dissatisfied with their possessions and income, but also less satisfied with their family relationships and the amount of fun they have," said Marsha Richins, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "They certainly are less happy with all aspects of their lives."

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