Photo: Michael Mechanic

Is the Pandemic Making Us More Materialistic?

In chapter six of Jackpot, I explore “the psychology of consumption.” We strike a balance in our daily lives between extrinsic values—such as our desire for money, power, status, looks, and success—and intrinsic ones, like acceptance in our community, building close friendships, putting others first, etc—the things most parents would like to see in their children. Those of us who lean too heavily toward extrinsic values and pursuits, which are tied to materialism, experience worse outcomes—poor relationships, more negative emotions, fewer positive ones, and so on.

One of my book sources is psychologist Tim Kasser, one of the nation’s leading researchers on materialism and its causes and effects. As I write in the book: “There’s a substantial body of research suggesting that we grow increasingly materialistic when our psychological needs are unmet. Economic uncertainty can trigger extrinsic values, which are heightened, Kasser and the University of Missouri’s Kennon Sheldon found, when people experience “psychological threat”—threats to our survival, self-esteem, social inclusion, and sense of order, control, and community.” Perhaps some people turn to retail therapy to self-medicate, even if it doesn’t really work.

I was curious how the pandemic might be affecting us collectively, given the psychological threat it engenders. One might hypothesize that it would make us more materialistic. Then again, it made certain extrinsic things we spend on, like fashion, momentarily irrelevant. I checked in to ask Kasser for his thoughts. This was our exchange. As I expected, there isn’t a simple answer. (There never is.)

Dear Tim,

I’ve been thinking about what the effect of COVID might be on our collective MVO (materialistic values orientation). If COVID has contributed to psychological threat across American society, one would expect to see an uptick in the consumption of certain kinds of goods.

Then again, the question is complicated by the fact that very wealthy people ended up doing exceptionally well this past year, which one might think would ease some of those feelings of threat—yet it also left them with tons of cash to play with, which is perhaps why we’re seeing prices driven up on things like fancy sneakers and baseball cards—if you saw that New York Times piece. The question is also complicated by the fact that much of the population had been running on fumes, and that commerce was held up in many respects by the inability of brick-and-mortar businesses to run at full tilt. I’m just curious to get your take on what the hell is going on right now vis-a-vis your interests. 



Hi Mike,

My sense is that COVID is clearly the kind of threat that could increase materialistic values orientation in the general populace. That is, although the wealthy have done quite well in the stock market, they are only a small percentage of the overall population. Most people have experienced fear of illness/death + social isolation; a reasonable percentage of people have experienced financial threat; and a reasonable percentage have experienced the loss of friends or family from COVID. All of these are different sorts of relevant threats likely to increase an MVO.  

Further, I predict that there will be large governmental and business pushes to return to “life as normal,” which of course means high levels of consumption. The combination of threat + social modeling (i.e., both of the known causes of MVO) seems very likely to push people towards materialistic values.  

There could, of course, be exceptions. If, for example, people have taken this period of time to mindfully examine their lives, there could be a kind of “post-traumatic growth” that could push them towards intrinsic values. Or if they have found new ways to live intrinsic values as a result of the societal disruption they have experienced, they may choose to stay on that path. Or if the government and businesses realize that the path of high levels of consumption is fraught with many problems, we could move in a more intrinsic path societally.  


Anyway, some food for thought. How has the crisis affected your own social and economic mindset?

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