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“Good” Materialism Such a Thing?

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What Is Materialism?


Materialism, an extremely complex construct but well known in Western Societies. When said out loud, most people have an intuitive feel on what this word may mean. Conceptual examples include personal value, personality trait an extrinsic motivation focus. Furthermore a preference over products rather than experiences. Ignoring all variables associated with Materialism. We can definitely say, the majority of us think Materialism is a negative connotation. Associated with a group of consumers that consume too much, i.e to materialistic. But, my argument today would to only defend the “good” side of materialism. Research showing consumers using materialism to exuded a desired characteristic to others.


Before we can defend materialism, or at least the “good”, we have to define the term first. Note – there are multiple definitions and perspectives on materialism (values, needs, motives, etc.).

For this situation, we will conceptualize materialism in terms of the symbolic motives the underlying behavior.


‘Materialism is the extent to which individuals attempt to engage in the construction and maintenance of the self through the acquisition and use of products, services, experiences, or relationships that are perceived to provide desirable symbolic value’ (Shrum et al., 2013, p. 1180).

What sets this definition apart from others are that it (1) uses materialism to maintain or construct self-identity; (2) defines materialism in terms of acquiring, which include not only buying but also acquisition through gifts; (3) includes not just products and services, but also experiences, yes, that means the 4 vacations we take each year, or the concerts we attend as well as the sporting events too…oh and you can’t forget relationships. All of it. Lastly (4) referring to the symbolic nature of the acquisitions, which in turn is used to signal the desired attribute about the self or other.  

Tones of research have linked materialism to lower-levels of well-being, which was predominantly focused on stable materialistic traits and values, and long-term measures of well being. Such as happiness, life satisfaction, subjective well-being and quality of life.

Furthermore, since materialistic behaviors serve as indicators of purpose to the self, or other – may at times help individuals achieve their short-term objectives.

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Materialistic Motives

Now let’s dive deep into some of these motives I mentioned before. Compensatory consumption refers to consumption that is motivated by insecurity aka self-threat. Threats to our fundamental needs such as the needing to belong, power and control and meaningful existence. This also includes aspects of the self – intelligence, athletic ability, an exciting personality.


When we feel self-threats we tend to focus on restoring aspects of our self-worth through consumption. We also us symbolic products to achieve or maintain a sense of identity, as well as to signal our desired identity to others. For example – at school you’re made fun of for the clothes you wear, so you buy more appealing clothes to signal you are just as stylish as anyone else.


By conducting this action we believe materialistic consumption will boost self-esteem, approval, or sense of power and control.

When we feel threats to our rational needs such as belongingness which result in social exclusion, we buy products to attempt to reconnect with others. Spending money on products that signify group membership and by adjusting our spending to conform with the group we anticipate interacting.


“You Are Your Friends”; “Birds Of A Feather, Flock Together.”


Self-threats also occur through observation. Think about all the young girls who form their identity based off of the internet i.e. Instagram or youtube. Or the SoundCloud rapper that needs to have 8 gold chains because every other “successful” rapper has 10. If we compare ourselves to those that “have more” we are more inclined to purchases those same goods and services.


BUT! We already know this, what I’ve said so far is nothing new. We’ve either experienced this at some point in our lives or we’re experiencing it now.  We are all creatures of habit, therefore predictable as fuck!


Peep this though, the recent study explains when its participants experienced self-doubt about a certain (e.g an exciting person).  They compensated by choosing a product or service related to excitement (e.g. Skydiving) relative to those who were primed with more confidence. Importantly, the self-view confidence after dealing with self-doubt was significantly increased after choosing the compensatory product or service.  


This study suggests that materialism may have a positive utility on individuals, at least under certain circumstances. However, self-doubt and the need to “prop” up aspects of the self cannot alone account for the motivations for materialistic behavior.


Although there is extensive research on the negative relationship between materialism and well-being, the question still remains…why, if materialism fails in obtaining life satisfaction, is it so appealing?


Rodeo Drive


One of these reasons could be tied to the possibility that most people still, in fact, believe materialism will make them happy, and the continued consumption would make them happier. Adding to that, studies do show though materialist report lower levels of well-being than non-materialist, they actually benefit more from materialistic purchases. In other-other words, materialistic individuals may experience a (short-term) increase in well-being after their consumption.


These short-term rewards motive materialistic people to continue pursuing their materialistic goals, despite the potential long-term adverse effects of materialistic consumption. Materialist, compared to non-materialist, experience greater emotions before purchasing a product because of expectations that the purchase will improve the satisfaction of their lives. In other words, not only the actual outcome that determines the value of a good, but also expectations (appearance, hedonic, efficacy, relationship, and self-transformation, etc.) that come with it.


Explicitly increasing happiness through consumption may not always be the primary motivation of materialist, however. They also care about other desirable outcomes, such as status, fame, and or the admiration of others or their relative position within their social group.


Status is valued intrinsically, feels good, and is connected to the ability to access the valuable resource. Conspicuous consumption could be a strategy for gaining status or approval. This strategy appealing to other materialists who are concerned with the symbolic meanings of products. Moreover, these products signal personal characteristics, such as taste, or importance.  


Results from other streams of research do indicate or suggest such materialistic behaviors can be fruitful. Conspicuous consumption may produce desirable outcomes in the context of interpersonal relationships and interactions. Displaying status may elicit favorable treatments from negotiation or submissive behavior. We’ve all seen a well-dressed man or women and instantly become attractive to them. Researchers show conspicuous consumption will help men get laid. Conspicuous signals of wealth and status may raise the mating success of men who display them…*puts Gucci drawls on.


Material values scale consistently shows a negative correlation between overall materialism and life satisfaction, when the scale is decomposed into its three subscales (happiness, success, and centrality), the subscales do not uniformly predict decreased well-being.


Although happiness materialism (the belief that more possessions will increase happiness) is consistently related to lower levels of life satisfaction, success materialism (the belief that possessions are indicators of success) tends to be uncorrelated with life satisfaction, and centrality (the general importance of possessions in one’s life) tends to be positively correlated with life satisfaction.


Breaking Materialism Down Further.

Different dimensions of materialism may reflect different underlying motivations (Lens et al., 2012), the utility of materialistic goal pursuit (and consequent behavior) may be a function of the underlying motives. This notion is consistent with findings by Srivastava, Locke, and Bartol (2001), who showed that the relationship between financial aspirations and well-being depends on the underlying motives (cf. Carver & Baird, 1998; Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996). Motives such as family support, security, and pride were positively correlated with subjective well- being, whereas motives such as social comparison and overcoming self-doubt were negatively correlated with subjective well-being.


Materialism depends on the symbolic nature (signaling aspect) of the behavior. For example, a person may purchase a large, expensive house, not necessarily to signal wealth and prestige. But for the security and comfort, it provides. Furthermore, a wealthy person may rely on luxury brand names, those considered to be prestige brands by those less wealthy – as a dependence of quality and function, just as less wealthy consumers do with everyday brands.




Wait!! Their’s More!

But the flip side is also true: consumption generally not considered to be materialistic also serve signaling purposes. Materialism is not only about typical luxury and status consumption. People may purchase and display products to signal desirable attributes such as altruism and social concern, which themselves may signal a certain status (Furchheim, Jahn, & Zanger, 2013). For example, status motives can increase the desirability of green products over more luxurious but non-green products when the green products are relatively more costly and consumed in public (Griskevicius, Tybur, & Van Den Bergh, 2010). The evolutionary concept of costly signaling, an altruistic act that is performed in public signals at least two things. The person is willing to incur the cost of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Additionally, the person has the ability (financial resources and time) to incur self-sacrifice.


Altruistic behaviors are not just about status, however; they may also be used to signal valuable and socially positive qualities. Greed and selfishness are generally considered to be negative qualities (Ayn Rand followers notwithstanding) and altruistic acts are considered to be positive qualities. Thus, people may use altruistic acts to convey positive traits.


Finally, altruism is not just for other-signaling. Products allow people to construct their own desired identities and thus may serve as self-signals of particular qualities (e.g. intelligence, taste) that are central to one’s self-identity (Connolly & Prothero,2003; Elliot, 2013).


In conclusion, at the end of the day, all I’m trying to convey is that being materialistic is okay. Especially if our underlying motives are pure and positive. I just ask if you’re in an endless consumption habit to appease others with the hopes of fitting in. Or you’re the young boy or girl booking flights to travel endlessly around the world. Just to curate a lifestyle for your followers. Furthermore, buying products consistently for the approval of others will lead you to an unfilled life, I promise you that. But, if you’re the type of consumer that possess materialistic traits because you ultimately want to exude positive characteristics. I encourage you to embrace them.   

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