Blog post

Treating people as consumers boosts materialistic values

“One of the most profound changes in our modern vocabulary is the way in which ‘We the People’ are defined”, observes the academic David Rutherford. “Not so very long ago, we ‘pictured’ ourselves as citizens. … Today, we are most often referred to (and therefore increasingly inclined to ‘see’ ourselves) as consumers.”

Too true. There has been an inexorable rise in the use of the term ‘consumer’ over the past forty years – a stark trend evident in both newspapers and books. But whilst the rise of consumerism has been well-documented, evidence of its negative impacts have proven harder to pin down. Does it really matter that we’re all consumers now?

A new study released last week suggests that it does matter – profoundly. The paper, ‘Cuing consumerism’, published in the journal Psychological Science, presents startling evidence that treating people as consumers demonstrably increases their materialistic outlook, lowers their wellbeing and makes them less co-operative.

Through a series of empirical tests, the researchers sought to explore the psychological effects of “omnipresent consumer cues” – such as advertising, and the “common media practice [of] using the term consumers to refer generically to the public … as opposed to using other potential generic terms, such as citizens.

In one test, half the participants were shown depictions of luxury consumer goods, the other half pictures of natural scenes devoid of consumer products. They were then asked to complete a series of questionnaires, commonly used by social psychologists to assess materialistic concerns. The researchers concluded that “merely viewing desirable consumer goods resulted in increases in materialistic concerns”. Furthermore, those who had viewed the luxury goods also “reported significantly higher levels of depressed affect and anxious affect (and marginally greater self-dissatisfaction) than participants in the control condition.”

In another test, the researchers sought to set up “a task-framing manipulation analogous to the media’s consumer-framing of the daily news.” Participants were asked to complete a survey, that was framed throughout either as a ‘Consumer Reaction Study’ or as a ‘Citizen Reaction Study’. Afterwards they were given a task in which they were asked to sort and associate themselves with certain words relating to social values. Those who had undertaken the Consumer Reaction Study “were faster to ‘approach’ words reflecting materialistic values, such as wealth, image and success”, than those in the control.

Further tests showed that “participants in the consumer-cue condition reported a stronger desire to outdo other people”, and, when presented with a scenario about water scarcity, “the consumer framing resulted in lower feelings of personal responsibility for dealing with the resource dilemma.” Most worryingly of all, the academics found that “thinking like a consumer… seemed to work against positive, cooperative engagement with other people.”

These are very significant findings, and should be required reading for policymakers and campaigners in every field. If we want to build a society whose members cooperate more, are less obsessed by material objects, take greater responsibility for tackling environmental problems and report higher levels of wellbeing, we need to start toning down the incessant appeals to people as ‘consumers’.  And we also need to start asking some searching questions about the compatibility of a system that constantly encourages materialistic values with the need to cut resource use and tackle climate change.

After all, it’s not just ever-present advertising and the mass media that encourage us to be consumers at every turn. It’s also the case that politicians and campaigners have often deployed this same terminology.

Over the past twenty years, for example, environment and development groups have championed ‘ethical consumerism’ and the need for us all to become ‘green consumers’. These efforts have clearly meant well and led to some important gains – like rising sales of Fairtrade and energy-efficient products, for example. But there are clearly dangers in expecting global poverty and the ecological crisis to be solved using shopping trolleys. What’s more, as this new study starkly shows, there is a real danger that advocates of ‘ethical consumerism’ undermine their own causes through their kow-towing to the dominant consumerist terminology of the age.

Knowing what we know now, it should be encumbent on politicians, journalists and campaigners to start turning the tide on consumerism. Politicians should take action against excessive advertising that seeks to turn even our kids into model consumers. Green activists could push for a new bill of rights enshrining what it means to hold environmental citizenship. A simple tweak to newspaper style guides could ensure journalists think twice before defaulting to the description of people as ‘consumers’.

Consuming is only part – a small part – of what it means to live in a civilised society. First and foremost, we need to become citizens, once more.

A version of this post first appeared on Shifting Grounds