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Why materialism erodes personal well-being

Tim Kasser is a professor of psychology at Knox College, Illinois. He has undertaken considerable research into materialism and has written a book called The High Price of Materialism. (1)
Kasser defines materialism as ‘buying in’ to a cluster of goals related to money, fame and image. People’s materialistic values can be measured in terms of their motivation towards ‘attaining possessions, attractiveness and popularity’. (2) Kasser reports extensive and ‘consistent’ international research which shows that ‘People who are highly focussed on  materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic values are relatively unimportant.’ (3)

Kasser argues that everyone must place some value on material goods. We need food and shelter to survive. A sense of security and comfort adds enormously to the quality of our lives. From time immemorial people have placed some value on their appearance – after all appearance is linked to sexual attractiveness and therefore to mating and what we wear also gives important signals to others. People have also always wanted to feel some degree of pride in their  accomplishments and, since humans are extremely social creatures, they have cared to some extent on how they are viewed by others. So Kasser’s argument is that ‘materialism is relative. Materialistic values become unhealthy when they are highly important in comparison with other values for which we might strive. The question is one of balance … .’ (4)

Kasser’s rule of thumb is that materialism is detrimental to our well-being when it compromises the fulfilment of our fundamental psychological needs. For example, those with a materialistic orientation place less value on warm, intimate relationships and take a more instrumental view of others and they often care too much about their outer appearances and image. They are also less likely to do things because they are intrinsically interesting or stimulating but because they make the person look good or feel better than others. These behaviours and values are not helpful in creating a truly fulfilling and rewarding life.

What human beings do need ....

Kasser argues that there are four sets of human needs essential for motivation, functioning and well-being’. The first relates to basic survival so is about ‘safety, security and sustenance.’ Kasser maintains that feelings of insecurity can predispose people to pursue a materialistic lifestyle. Indeed contemporary international research shows that people whose needs for ‘security, safety and sustenance’ were not met by their childhood upbringing are much more like to develop a materialistic orientation to life.  However, the problem with this is that it often leads people to feel empty. They get things that they have aspired to in life, only to feel dissatisfied and have to move onto the next round of wants. And so the cycle continues.

The other three needs identified by Kasser echo those of Deci and Ryan’s  Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This argues from empirical research that human beings have basic psychological needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy. Kasser’s rule of thumb is that materialism is detrimental to our well-being when it compromises the fulfilment of these fundamental needs


In Self Determination Theory  relatedness refers to need to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness with others. Relatedness is about feeling  appreciated and valued as well as being able to participate and be involved in social groups. Obviously there is something fundamentally human about this need. Since children have a long dependency period on adults, our species would not survive if we were not programmed for attachment, and caring. Deci and Ryan argue that it also became adaptive for human beings to extend these feelings of attachment and altruism to ‘non-kin group members’.  This shift allowed for larger and more cohesive groups which afforded greater protection to their members. An influential theory advanced by Robin Dunbar maintains that human beings have large brains so that they can process the huge amounts of information needed to relate to others and live successfully in a large group.(5)
 However, materialistic values encourage people to place less value on their relationships with others. Indeed Kasser argues from research that those with a materialistic orientation to life care less about warm, intimate relationships and take a more instrumental view of others. Research shows that exposure to glamorous media images can make people feel more critical of their real partners.

In Self Determination Theory autonomy does not mean independence from others, nor does it mean individualism, selfishness or detachment. Rather it means having a sense of volition or control. They argue that it makes sense for human beings, operating inevitably in changing circumstances and contexts, to prefer to self-organise and self-regulate. They write:

… through autonomy individuals better regulate their own actions in accordance with their full array of felt needs and available capacities, thus coordinating and prioritizing processes toward more effective self-maintenance.  (Deci and Ryan) (6)

Examples of the importance of autonomy can be found in a variety of studies. For example, some medical research projects show that the more patients or clients are given responsibility (for example, in insulin control for diabetics) the more likely they are to adhere to the programme. Research projects with young people also shows how external rewards and punishments can  undermine their intrinsic motivation and decrease performance. Another way that materialistic values can undermine well-being is that they can makes us overly concerned with outer appearances and image. This means that I don’t do things because I value them, but because I hope it will make me look good in others’ eyes. As I attach much value to my appearance then I will often feel insecure as there are always even more glamorous people than myself and because natural ageing will inevitably work against my desires to be seen favourably by others.


In Self-Determination Theory competence refers to the need to experience oneself as capable of controlling the environment and bringing about desired outcomes. In short, to feel effective. As babies we are equipped with a natural tendency for ‘motor play, manipulation of objects, and exploration of surroundings’. (7) This primes us for growth and also means that we are naturally equipped to find satisfaction in learning for its own sake. The desire for discovery and exploration has evolutionary value leading, for example, to the discovery of new food supplies and more complex ways for group interaction. The fact that the desire to learn is open, rather than directed to specific activities, leads human beings to be ‘curious and assimiliative’ (8)The need to feel competent and effective, together with this broad interest in learning, also allows for individual development and specialization.

Extrinsic goals

For Kasser one of the main problems with materialism is that it encourages us to endorse extrinsic values such as fame, money and popularity. What this means is that people set goals in order to receive external recognition, reward or praise; people do things for the reward not for the satisfaction. Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, involve valuing something because it is inherently satisfying or meaningful, such as relationships with others, the community  or personal growth.  Holding extrinsic goals not only undermines intrinsic goals but impacts upon many facets of life thus making it less likely that we will flourish and feel fulfilled.



1.Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism, Kasser, T, 2002,  Bradford Books, Cambridge                                                                                                                     

2. Kasser.p.13            
3. Kasser, p. 22
4. Kasser, p. 111
5. Robin Dunbar,  Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Harvard University Press, 1998.
6. Edward I; Deci and Richard M. Ryan, 'The "What" and "Why" of Goal Pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour' in Psychological Inquiry, (vol 11, no 4, 2000), p.254
7.Deci and Ryan,  p. 252
8.Deci and Ryan, p. 253

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