Materialism Makes Bad Events Even Worse, Lowers Resiliency
Dr. John Schinnerer
The holiday season is upon us with all it’s gift-giving glory…an interesting backdrop to new research that shows new damaging effects of materialism on our well-being.
Some of us are more prone to deal with negative emotions and stressors with shop therapy – buying more stuff. A new study out of the University of Illinois sheds a new light on the negative effect of materialism on how well we deal with a negative event. Having a materialistic approach to life when things go badly, appears to make bad situations worse.
Materialistic people tend to cope with trauma, difficulty and tragedy with impulsive buying and compulsive spending. For many, spending is a salve that soothes our inner wounds.
However, researcher Aric Rindfleisch states that a high degree of materialism is not only detrimental to our individual well-being, it also appears to amplify the inner emotional distress associated with stressful events. Stressful situations, such as robbery, car accidents, cancer and job loss, are more difficult to bounce back from when you are more materialistic.
Why does materialism matter?
“If you’re a materialistic individual and life suddenly takes a wrong turn, you’re going to have a tougher time recovering from that setback than someone who is less materialistic,” said Rindfleisch, the John M. Jones Professor of Marketing in the College of Business. “The research is novel in that an event that’s unrelated to materialism will have a stronger impact on someone because of their materialistic values. In other words, materialism has a multiplier effect. It’s a finding that I think is especially interesting given our consumer-driven economy.”
The research looked at the connection between traumatic stress and compulsive consumption using an Israeli field study and a U.S. national survey.
When confronted with a life-threatening terrorist attack, the study showed that highly materialistic individuals in Israel reported higher degrees of post-traumatic stress (PTSD), compulsive and impulsive purchases than less-materialistic individuals.
“Materialistic people cope with bad events through materialistic mechanisms,” stated Rindfleisch. “When there’s a terrorist attack in Israel, people who are materialistic suffer higher levels of distress and are more likely to compensate for that through higher levels of compulsive and impulsive purchasing.”
One of the theories is that these effects are due to lower self-esteem in materialistic individuals which reduces their resiliency in dealing with traumatic events.
“You can think of terrorist attacks as a mortal threat to your life,” Rindfleisch said. “To replicate the study in the U.S., as a corollary, we asked people to tell us about their level of death anxiety. Those who had more anxiety toward death were very similar to the groups who were under terrorist attacks in Israel.”
“Both components of the study provide converging evidence that in times of extreme stress, highly materialistic individuals seek comfort in compulsive and impulsive consumption,” Rindfleisch reported.
“At its core, materialism is a value-based response to insecurity in one’s life,” he said. “Our research more broadly suggests that it’s also about existential insecurity. This idea that we’re all aware of our mortality and focusing on that can be almost debilitating.”
And traumatic experiences may be broadly defined as any event that one perceives as traumatic, not solely terrorism-related events.
Traumatic events “…could be about a broad range of stressful life events, including serious illness, an automobile accident or a natural disaster,” he said. “So the scope is broader than a terrorist attack. It’s more like a traumatic event that leads to this insecure sense of self. Thus, our research uncovers a hidden yet potentially quite expansive domain of consequences that have largely gone unnoticed in prior research.”
According to Rindfleisch, it’s a good reminder prior to the holiday shopping season heading into full tilt.
“In times of stress, people often seek solace through shopping,” he said. “The idea here is that we need some form of a cultural-based coping mechanism, because the research suggests that there is actually a short-term fix with retail therapy. Soon after purchasing something, there is a reduction of anxiety. But it doesn’t last very long. It’s fleeting. Materialists seek that as one of their coping mechanisms. And Black Friday and the holiday shopping season play into that.”
Resiliency, the ability to bounce back quickly following adversity, is a learnable skill. My suggestion is to learn more adaptive ways to deal with and manage the negative emotions associated with trauma….tools such as mindfulness, forgiveness, gratitude, conscious cultivation of positive emotions, physical exercise, self-compassion and more.
All the best,
Dr. John Schinnerer
Positive Psychology Coach
Anger Management Specialist
Award-winning author of Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion & Thought
Founder, Guide to Self, Inc.
913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280
Danville CA 94526
Positive psychology blog: http://DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com
Anger management blog:
- Ayalla Ruvio, Eli Somer, Aric Rindfleisch. When bad gets worse: the amplifying effect of materialism on traumatic stress and maladaptive consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s11747-013-0345-6