What To Do With a Slightly Used Elephant?

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I found this interesting: The Consumer Paradox: Scientists Find that Low Self-Esteem and Materialism Goes Hand in Hand.

The upshot is that they’ve apparently established a causal link between low self-esteem and what I’ll call consumerism (both because it’s more descriptive, and because “materialism” has too many other meanings), though I don’t see any indication that they’ve demonstrated the mechanism. Low self-esteem causes people — young people, in this study — to buy more stuff. Events that raised those same people’s self-esteem caused them to buy less stuff. And the causation works the other way, too: consumerism causes low self-esteem.

If they’ve actually demonstrated a causal relationship there, this seems to me major news for the U.S.

Our whole society is based on consumerism. Our economy runs, almost purely, on consumerism. And not just ours. It’s a truism among economists that, “The American consumer is the engine that drives the world’s economy.” We aren’t just based on buying things; we’re based on selling each other things. We’re a marketing/advertising driven socio-economic system.

Consumerism is as central to our society as Leninism was to Soviet Russia. The thing Soviet Russia sold to its people above all else was Ideology. The thing America sells to its people above all else is Buying Stuff. There was a time when Work was the dominant American trope and ideology; now it’s the buying of stuff.

If, as this study apparently suggests, Buying Stuff is making us sick, we’re going to have to stop making it the core of our society. We’re going to have to stop selling Buying Stuff. The problem is, what then? In the absence of Buying Stuff, we don’t have an economy. Work isn’t there for us to fall back on, anymore. Nobody wants to work; we just want to buy stuff. Work is no longer seen as redemptive (e.g., the Protestant work ethic), or ennobling, or as giving purpose, or as worthwhile effort toward a socially valuable work-product, or as an expression of and outlet for character, or as providing, in itself, any other benefit. It’s just what gets us to Buying Stuff.

Buying Stuff, meanwhile, has become a good in itself. The point isn’t even owning things, it’s buying them. That’s where the pleasure is. There’s a phrase I’ve heard increasingly in recent years: “fun to buy,” as in, since the holiday season is upon us, “We could get Susie X, but that’s no fun to buy. Ooooh, let’s go to Cool Stuff Emporium and get her Y!” The point of the exercise becomes not Susie and the pleasure or use she might get from the gift, but ourselves and the pleasure of Buying Stuff.

The linked article references a Mad Magazine quote that’s been making the rounds on the internets lately: “The only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.”

Exactly. Why? Because elephants are useful to have around the house, or add value and satisfaction to one’s life? No. Because if elephants were for sale, they would be fun to buy. Nobody would want to own an elephant, of course. But buy one? What a blast!

Does this new study indicate we’re moving toward making advertising a national health issue? It seems unlikely. Advertising is pretty much all we do anymore. The interests are too large and too entrenched and too general.

If consumerism is causing widespread degradation of mental health, though, what’s the appropriate response?

(NB: I couldn’t find online the actual study mentioned in the linked article, or even a complete cite for it. Here’s author, title, and journal: Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John, “Growing Up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents,” Journal of Consumer Research.)

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8 Responses to “What To Do With a Slightly Used Elephant?”

  1. Whitney Says:

    I would want to own an elephant–Just for the record–But I’d need a bigger backyard. (Oh, and I’m not kidding either. I think elephants are SO COOL. But I’d want a giraffe as well. They’re the cutest animal ever next to my dog.)

    But buying one…no fun. I don’t personally find buying things that fulfilling…so I guess that is good? Shopping…FUN!! But the expenditure of my hard earned dollars…not so much fun.

    I wish I had time right now to read the article and be super nerdy about their research design. Maybe this weekend…interesting stuff, though! I know we probably all have anecdotes to support the notion, at least.

  2. mystiquefree Says:

    That’s the second non-consumerist message I’ve read today. Hmmm. Maybe it’s a hint from the universe …

    In the meantime, if you haven’t yet, here’s the trailer for the upcoming movie: “What would Jesus Buy” here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGi21YQFjMM

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    Stick with elephants, Whitney.

    Giraffes are so selfish.

  4. captmidknight Says:

    JU
    I saw the principals discussed in the linked article above in action today as I went with my wife to her favorite local Crafts Fair. Thankfully, no elephants were on offer, or someone would certainly have gone home with one.
    My wife left over $600 there, so her self esteem must be in good shape. Mine, on the other hand, took a pretty good hit!

  5. Whitney Says:

    Since I am not a contributor in terms of posting, I have to hijack another to bring up a topic, so here goes (and I’m stepping on Mikey’s toes, to boot):

    Did anyone see “Love in the Time of Cholera” this weekend? I remember it being discussed here, and I’d like to read the book before I see the movie. Seeing movies first always ruins my mental imagery while reading. Maybe I’ll pick it up as my holiday reading.

    Anyone ever had a book they loved ruined by the movie? What were the best and worst adaptations you’ve seen?

    Speaking of reading, did anyone see the news articles this weekend talking about how fewer Americans than ever are reading for pleasure? I wonder if this is actually true, or if fewer Americans are reading purchased books versus online content for pleasure.

  6. michaellasley Says:

    whit — you’ll love LitToC. it’s a great book. slow reading at times, but well worth it. i haven’t seen the movie yet. I usually don’t watch movies if i want to read a book because i don’t want it to be ruined for me. i don’t even like to know who is in a movie if i want to read the book because i don’t want some random person in my mind when i’m reading the book.

    best adaptation — Wonder Boys.
    good adaptation — the pelican brief.
    bad adaptation — any other grisham novel — the movies are always horrible adaptations of already kind of bad books.

    i didn’t see the article, and i think i posted something about this a couple of months ago. i usually don’t believe those articles. people have never read as much as we like to think. i don’t think a lot of people read, but i don’t think a lot of people read to begin with. i think people are probably reading more these days because of the internet — you just can’t measure that by publisher’s sales.

    my toes are tough.

  7. michaellasley Says:

    JU — interesting article. i know i hear people say they spend money as a way to cope with stress. and it seems commonsensical that people spend to feel good about themselves. but you raise an interesting question because there really doesn’t seem to be a way to break the cycle. it’s like a closed system feeding off itself.

  8. Whitney Says:

    Here you go:

    Title Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents

    Author(s) Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John

    Identifiers Journal of Consumer Research, volume 34 (2007), pages 480–493
    DOI: 10.1086/518546

    Copyright © 2007, JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc..

    Abstract We examine age differences in materialism with children and adolescents 8ndash18 years old. In study 1, we find materialism increases from middle childhood to early adolescence and declines from early to late adolescence. Further, we find that age differences are mediated by changes in self-esteem occurring from middle childhood through adolescence. In study 2, we prime self-esteem to obtain further evidence of a causal link between self-esteem and materialism. As expected, we find that inducing high self-esteem decreases expressions of materialism. Inducing high self-esteem reduces materialism among adolescents so dramatically that age differences in materialism disappear.

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