University of Colorado’s Psychology Professor Leaf Van Boven, has spent his career studying the materialistic individual and his or her quest for happiness.
More recently, he has led a study to compare how well liked materialistic people are compared to experiential people (those who use their money on life experiences, not possessions). It turns out that being materialistic may cost you more than debt – it may result in less close friendships and less impact on social relationships in general.
Two different experiments generate the same results
Van Boven and a team of researchers conducted multiple experiments and one national survey, with results printed in the April 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, to see if people held unfavorable stereotypes of materialistic people – and if so, would those pre-set stereotypes lead them to like materialistic people less than experiential individuals.
One experiment consisted of pairing undergraduate college students with no previous relationship, and letting them have a conversation for 15 or 20 minutes. Each person had to describe either a possession or experience that they had purchased and that had impacted their lives in a meaningful way.
After the initial conversation, the researchers separated the pairs and questioned each person alone.
They found that people who discussed material objects were less liked than people who had discussed experiences.
Furthermore, while many reported that they were not interested in becoming friends with the person who discussed the material object, others mentioned that they were interested in becoming friends with the people who discussed experiences they had had.
Another experiment consisted of a group of people, sitting together, being told about a person who had either recently purchased something or recently had a interesting life experience, and later were asked questions about that person (who they never saw, unlike in the previous experiment).
The interesting thing here was that in both experiments the results were similar – even without meeting the other person, the testers immediately thought they would like the person who made a material purchase less than the person who had purchased something to experience, simply based on description.
There are many long term negative effects to being materialistic.
According to Van Boven’s study, “there’s a real social cost to being associated with material possessions rather than life experiences.”
When he asked a few participants to think of characteristics that described a materialistic person, words like “selfish” and “self-centered” were mentioned, which certainly contrast with “outgoing,” “friendly,” and “altruistic,” which were some of the words given to describe more experiential individuals.
In addition to being liked less, other studies have shown that materialistic people have less long-lasting friendships and lower quality social relationships.
Findings from a 2009 study at San Francisco State University, reported at a Society for Personality and Social Psychology meeting late in the year, showed that since experiences tend to include other people, the memory of that experience and the time spent together brings the participants closer together – the bond formed over the shared experience tends to be lasting.
On the contrary, purchases are usually made alone, and with no one to share the joy, the excitement of a new purchase is much more short-lived than the excitement of an experience, which can remain in one’s mind for a long time.
What Does This Mean?
You may chalk some of this research to simple common sense: someone who shows off about their possessions is usually thought of as a bore.
But, one thing for sure we now know from these experiments is that if you want to win friends and influence people, it is better to move the conversation around experiences rather than possessions.
And whether actually being materialistic is the cause of the negative attributions remains to be seen, meaning it might be ok to love your stuff – just don’t go around talking about it!
Just to throw some contrarian information out there, there are groups that form around products. The Apple community is an example, as a lot of deep friendships are made around the shared “experiences” of their products.
So I will leave it up to you, this issue is obviously not as black and white as the research suggests: what are your thoughts on this issue?
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 4, p. 551-563 (April, 2010)
Society For Personality and Social Psychology Annual Meeting, February 25, 2009, Tampa, FL.
University of Colorado at Boulder
A new study published in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Neuron, has identified areas of the brain that, when damaged, leads to a greater sense of self-transcendence.
The higher you are on the self-transcendence scale, the more you view yourself as being an integral part of the universe as a whole… So if you rank low on this scale, it is all about YOU!
And no, the researchers didn’t damage people’s brains just to find out. They somehow got permission to do pre and post personality testing with patients who had to have surgery anyway that would cause selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions.
Does One Need Brain Damage to Gain Transcendence?
I seriously doubt it! Remember, this is normally a stable personality trait – so some people just naturally see themselves as part of a greater whole.
And some people spend years in meditation in order to move up the scale. There has been a lot of solid research behind various forms of meditation demonstrating that not only can a person move up this scale in the personality tests…
But also make significant changes to their brain’s structure. But this takes years.
One thing (among others) that is interesting here, is that we now know that by directly altering the brain’s structure through surgery, that deep personality changes can be made… and they aren’t all bad.
Better Living Through Direct Brain Alteration?
According to Dr. Salvatore M. Aglioti from Sapienza University of Rome (one of the researchers):
“If a stable personality trait like self transcendence can undergo fast changes as a consequence of brain lesions, it would indicate that at least some personality dimensions may be modified by influencing neural activity in specific areas,… Perhaps novel approaches aimed at modulating neural activity might ultimately pave the way to new treatments of personality disorders.”
Well, this seems to be opening a whole new can of worms! I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but it seems to me that down the road this could be used to literally change the personalities of those who the powerful deem as, “subversive”.
It could also turn into something like plastic surgery where people go in to get a quick, “personality adjustment”.
And of course, it could become a very valuable tool for people who are living a life of internal pain. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
I hope you found that interesting, if you want more of this type of information – let me know.
Citation: Urgesi et al., ‘The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence’, Neuron, February 2010, 65 (3), 309-319; doi: