What’s behind American consumerism?
As Americans increasingly spend more than they earn, psychological research is providing clues as to why.
By Amy Novotney
July/August 2008, Vol 39, No. 7
Print version: page 40
Woman holding a bag and a credit card
One bright spot in the midst of the country’s economic downturn may be a long-overdue focus on reining in our spending. Since 1982, Americans’ personal savings rate has dropped from 11 percent to below zero, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and personal bankruptcy
filings have reached record highs. As the debt load has risen, psychologists have increasingly been called on to explain why Americans overspend. In the last six months alone, APA’s Media Referral Service fielded more than 60 requests from media organizations looking to talk to a psychologist about money–more than any other subject during the same time.
Researchers say that new ways of advertising, paired with cultural shifts toward consumerism, seem to be driving the trend.
“Any time the urge strikes, we now have the capability to act on it impulsively, and that creates a much greater challenge for us than was ever the case before,” says psychologist Stuart Vyse, PhD, author of “Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money” (Oxford University Press, 2008). “It’s only natural that we are having trouble with debt.”
The almighty impulse
One culprit may be unending demand on our self-control, says Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister, PhD. Like a muscle that tires after too much use, taking on too many willpower-taxing tasks depletes our resources, and we have trouble succeeding at any of them, according to research by Baumeister in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 28, No. 4).
“When there are too many other new demands on your time–when you’re under stress, meeting deadlines at work, dealing with a difficult relationship–you’re going to be at risk for spending more,” he says.
Credit cards further undermine our willpower, says Los Angeles clinical psychologist and wealth consultant James Gottfurcht, PhD. Before the deregulation of credit-card interest rates in 1978, only wealthier consumers qualified for a credit card. Now the credit-card industry begins soliciting consumers in high school, offering credit often at very high interest rates without requiring financial qualifications or providing guidance in how the cards should be used, says Gottfurcht, co-author of “Blueprint for Success” (Insight Publishing, 2008).
“They’re conditioning people into building debt at a very young, vulnerable age,” he says.
To make matters worse, psychological research shows that credit cards condition us to give in to impulses. A Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 13, No. 3) study by Purdue University psychologist Richard A. Feinberg, PhD, shows that simply alerting consumers to the fact that an establishment accepts credit cards–by displaying a Visa or MasterCard insignia in the store window–makes them more likely to make a purchase. The findings were true even if the consumer did not use a credit card, Feinberg notes.
Society says: Spend!
Of course, this is no accident. Advertisers spend millions researching how to induce us to purchase, says Vyse, a Connecticut College psychology professor. Their findings often lead to increasingly innovative, and sometimes intrusive, ways to market their products, he adds.
Before the 1970s, he notes, our homes were places of quiet and refuge, where we could not be separated from our money. “You were not a commercial animal at home,” says Vyse.
That changed in 1976 with the advent of L.L. Bean’s mail-order catalog that enabled consumers to call toll-free to place their orders, and later with TV’s home shopping networks. Nowadays, the Internet allows people to easily spend away their paycheck at home, on the road, or even while they’re at work earning money.
And while advertisements used to appear exclusively in magazines and newspapers, today they are everywhere: on bathroom stall doors, airplane tray tables and even laser-etched on the shells of eggs.
“There’s very little space that your eye can fall on that doesn’t have some kind of branded image on it,” Vyse says.
But perhaps advertising’s most worrisome effect is that it works, and all this purchasing could be driving us into debt and unhappiness. Financial difficulties are the leading cause of marital problems among Americans today, and a 2001 Social Science and Medicine study (Vol. 53, No. 4) suggests that worry about debt can lead to stress and depression. Concern about money even extends to the workplace and can lead to absenteeism, lowered productivity and an increase in stress-related illnesses among workers, according to a 2006 report by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy institute.
Psychologists have an important role to play in helping people make wise financial decisions, and resist advertisers’ siren’s song, Vyse says.
“People may have more physical objects and possessions now than they had in previous generations, but many of them are deeply unhappy,” he says. “Psychologists can be part of a movement to push back some of the influences of commercialism in our lives.”