OLIDAY shoppers beware: Do you really need that 42-inch plasma television with surround sound, or does your urge to splurge stem from a narcissistic personality disorder?
Such questions are at the heart of "Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World," a collection of essays published recently by the American Psychological Association that examine the causes and consequences of Americans' insatiable appetite for buying stuff.
Economists, sociologists and even anthropologists have plenty to say about consumer culture. Yet the discipline of psychology has been relatively invisible. According to the book's editors, Tim Kasser, a professor at Knox College in Illinois, and Allen D. Kanner, a private practitioner in California, this silence stems from psychologists' strong preference for studying individual behavior, as well as their "ambivalent attitude" toward social policy and criticism, especially if their findings risk appearing "anti-capitalistic." (Don't forget: it was psychologists in the early 20th century who created the modern science of advertising.)
If these essays are any guide, Americans' shopping addiction stems from a heap of psychological baggage. Excerpts follow.
Sometimes, buying a Prada bag isn't just about the Prada bag. In an essay on materialism by Tim Kasser, Richard M. Ryan, Charles E. Couchman and Kennon M. Sheldon, the authors maintain that experiences undermining basic psychological needs lead to a "materialistic value orientation," or M.V.O.:
According to our model, a strong M.V.O. is one way in which people attempt to compensate for worries and doubts about their self-worth, their ability to cope effectively with challenges and their safety in a relatively unpredictable world. . . . A growing body of research demonstrates that people who strongly orient toward values such as money, possessions, image and status report lower subjective well-being. . . For example, Kasser and Ryan (1993, 1996, 2001) have shown that when people rate the relative importance of extrinsic, materialistic values as high in comparison to other pursuits (e.g., self-acceptance, affiliation, community feeling), lower quality of life is also reported.
Late adolescents with a strong M.V.O. report lower self-actualization and vitality, as well as more depression and anxiety. They also are rated by interviewers as lower in social productivity and general functioning and as higher in conduct disorders. . . .
Kasser and Ryan (1996, 2001) have demonstrated that an M.V.O. in college students is positively associated with narcissism, physical symptoms, and drug use and negatively associated with self-esteem and quality of relationships. . . . Cohen and Cohen (1996) found that adolescents who admire others because of their possessions are at an increased risk for personality disorders.
Providing a new angle on the phrase, "Shop till you drop," Sheldon Solomon, Jeffrey L. Greenberg and Thomas A. Pyszczynski argue that conspicuous consumption stems from a fear of death:
The purpose of this chapter is to explain the psychological underpinnings of conspicuous consumption from the perspective of terror management theory. . . . Our basic thesis is that conspicuous consumption is a direct result of the uniquely human awareness of mortality and the pursuit of self-worth and death transcendence that this awareness engenders.
For Mary Poppins, "Enough is as good as a feast," but this nominally sensible approach to life has never been embraced or practiced by the human race. For humans, enough has never been enough; and avaricious acquisitiveness has rendered human history a giant plundering shopping spree, one that predates the first suburban shopping mall by thousands of years. . . .
The notion that the urge to splurge is fundamentally defensive death denial above and beyond the quite legitimate pursuit of material comfort and aesthetic pleasure is supported by both the historical record and contemporary empirical research. . . .
Could the American Dream actually be just another psychopathological form of death denial raised to the level of civic virtue by cultural ideology? Is there any empirical evidence that bears directly on these claims? Yes.
Courtesy of the psychologists Jeffrey Kottler, Marilyn Montgomery and David Shepard, we meet "Ronald," a composite of the authors' clinical cases. Ronald has an unhealthy relationship with his Cadillac collection:
A 50-year-old single man came into the therapist's office for a first session. The therapist looked at the man, noticing his shaking hands and downcast eyes. He also couldn't help but observe that he was immaculately dressed in an Armani jacket — easily worth $1,500. . . .
"Ronald" introduced himself with a rather shaky voice. . . . Determined to transcend his unhappy beginnings, Ronald had become a successful real estate broker. . . . As the local housing market boomed, Ronald had luxuriated in the trappings of success. Ronald's eyes lit up as he told how his house was once photographed for Architectural Digest and as he described his collection of vintage Cadillacs. . . .
About a month later, the therapist received a desperate call from Ronald. "Everything was going great. . . . But then the I.R.S. caught up with me. I don't want to tell you how much I owe. And I'm being sued. . . . I want to see you, but I have to tell you. . . . I'm basically broke." . . .
Ronald's case is an illustration of a psychological disorder that may be termed acquisitive desire. . . . Like substance-abuse and eating disorders, problems of A.D. represent a multifaceted cluster of enduring cognitive, behavioral, and social factors that are linked with other symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and impulsivity. . . .
We see A.D. as an overarching construct that may include features such as compulsive shopping, hoarding, greed, purchasing or collecting objects, and the neurotic pursuit of possessions. A final symptom of A.D. is the common phenomenon of clients regarding their therapist as a personal possession.
Later in the same essay, the authors dissect a special form of acquisitive desire. Their description suggests that the embattled former chief executive of Tyco International, L. Dennis Kozlowski, has more to sort out than he thinks:
A final type of disorder associated with A.D. is narcissistic personality disorder. Newspaper tabloids revel in publishing splashy stories about the bank president who was discovered to have a gold-plated toilet installed in his private chambers, paid for with bilked investors' funds, or about the school superintendent who was discovered to require a leased island condo for "business meetings." Sensational and far-fetched as these stories may seem, they are about real individuals whose neurotic greed has gotten so far out of hand that they get caught. When forced to seek help, they are usually diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterized by self-aggrandizement paired with extreme reactivity to failure.
Len Costa is a writer and the editorial director of HNW Inc., a consulting and research firm.