Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser, along with his co-author Jean Twenge, recently had a study published in the “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.” What the study aimed to explore was youths’ materialism in relation to work centrality, or their desire to work hard. A number of ideas were taken into consideration with the study.
The Knox Student: What was your process in pursuing this study?
Tim Kasser: What we did was we used a data set that was called The Monitoring the Future Data Set. It’s a big study that has been going on since 1967, so since I was a year old, actually.
What it does is, every year, it asks a very large sample of high school seniors a whole lot of different questions. As a result, what it can do is track trends over time.
We combined that data set with a bunch of statistical information about what was happening in the United States in those years as well as in five years beforehand, 10 years beforehand.
So what we did was we used some questions that had been asked year after year to measure materialism, so these were questions like, ‘How important was it to have a lot of money?’ ‘How important was it to have a job which provides you with means to earn a good deal of money?’ And, ‘How important was it to have more expensive possessions, like a vacation home, for example?’
TKS: What were your results?
TK: What we found was that materialism increased significantly from 1967 through 2007. The big increase happened between 1967 and about 1990. …What we say in the beginning of the paper is that older people are often fond of making critiques of the younger generation, but the point of our paper is actually that the kind of society which older generations create is partially responsible for why people’s materialism has gone up…
We know from other studies that there are two main things which lead people to endorse materialistic values. The first is a pretty obvious one, which is social modeling. So the more that you see models in your society that suggest that materialism is important, the more likely you take on those values. …We also know from studies that feelings of psychological insecurity lead to higher levels of materialism. …
We had measures for insecurity-measures of things like divorce or unmarried parents or the unemployment rate-and for societal modeling, we got the percentage of the United States GDP that was due to advertising expenditures. We found that both of those predicted youths’ materialism. …
The other part of the study was, we also mentioned students’ centrality of work to them. So there, we asked questions like, ‘To me, work is nothing more than making a living.’ …What’s ended up happening is at the same time that materialism has been increasing-since ‘67 to 2007-work centrality has declined.
What that means is there’s a gap. There’s this gap between wanting to have a lot of expensive stuff but not wanting to work in order to get the money that it takes to get that expensive stuff. …
What we found is the size of that gap in a particular year is again predicted by advertising revenue. If you think about ads, ads encourage materialism, but they almost never mention that you’ve got to work in order to get the money in order to buy this thing that’s being advertised.
TKS: What do you hope your audience gains from the study?
TK: I think that the first thing is that many people have argued for years-me among them-that exposure to advertising when you are young is something which is potentially damaging. …I think that here’s another pretty strong piece of evidence which supports the idea that encouraging children and youth to build their identities around consumption is problematic and potentially damaging for them.
We also know, from a variety of studies, that as materialism increases, so do levels of unhappiness and anxiety and depression. …We also know that materialism is associated with worse social behavior and more problematic environmental behavior. … So I think it’s another piece of interesting evidence. Our values are not just about our parents, and they’re not just about our genes-they’re about the dominant society in which we live.
A second thing I hope it gets people thinking about-especially youth thinking about-is it may be setting themselves up for disappointment if they expect they’re going to have all this stuff and want all this stuff, but work’s not going to be so central to them. …
Optimally, from my perspective, at least, rather than increasing their work centrality to meet their materialistic desires, perhaps people will consider decreasing their materialistic desires a bit more.