The holiday season is rife with the spoils of consumer culture as people flood malls and shopping centers searching for gifts, decorations, and foods to be purchased and shared at parties and gatherings. Vehicle traffic and stress levels go up while checking account balances go down, and some are left feeling drained and depleted. Others revel in the simple pleasure of buying presents and showing love in the form of gifts and other trinkets and treasures. And there is a beauty to it all—in the giving and receiving, the passing of plates, and the many buildings and homes decorated with strings of lights and holiday wreaths and other displays.
But at the core of these widely shared forms of celebration is a thread that runs through the masses, tying people together in the first-world dilemma known as materialism. Many are familiar with the dreaded sense of buyer’s remorse that often kicks in regarding an impulse purchase, which differs dramatically from the joy and relief experienced when finding that perfect present for a loved one. In the wake of an unnecessary and financially unwise purchase, a person may feel a range of negative emotions: guilt, shame, and self-loathing being a few examples.
Recent research suggests that, aside from its established negative effects on well-being, the impact of materialism extends to a person’s ability to process negative or traumatic events in life (Ruvio, Somer, and Rindfleisch, 2013). Basically, the researchers found that those who place great emphasis and importance on material wealth and possessions will respond to the mere threat of a crisis situation with unhealthy and materialistic coping mechanisms.
The research team, made up of professors from the University of Illinois, Michigan State University, and the University of Haifa, drew their conclusions by conducting a field study in Israel and a national survey in the United States. The information they gathered examined the experience of trauma-related stress and how it affects people’s consumerist habits of buying and spending.
“Materialistic people cope with bad events through materialistic mechanisms,” said Aric Rindfleisch, one of the researchers and a marketing professor in the University of Illinois’ College of Business. “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.”
The U.S. results showed that those who experienced large amounts of anxiety surrounding death mirrored the habits of those who lived in fear of terrorist attacks in Israel, and that both groups were prone to dealing with that stress through compulsive spending.
In a report on the study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Rindfleisch described materialism as a response to personal insecurities. He also discussed the comfort people experience through the simple act of shopping. “Retail therapy,” as he calls it, offers a “short-term fix” to largely unsolvable problems that are out of our immediate control.
If nothing else, it may be helpful for those in consumer-rich societies to be aware of this tendency as they move through the endless aisles of material goods and contemplate purchases during and after the holiday season.
- Medical News Today. (2013, November 28). Materialism makes bad events even worse. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/269379.php
- Ruvio, A., Somer, E., and Rindfleisch, A. (2013, July). When bad gets worse: the amplifying effect of materialism on traumatic stress and maladaptive consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. Abstract retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11747-013-0345-6
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