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