Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997 Pages 82-88
MATERIALISTIC VALUES AND SUSCEPTIBILITY TO INFLUENCE IN CHILDREN
Gwen Bachmann Achenreiner, St. John's University
Materialistic attitudes of children, ranging in age from 8 to 16, were examined using a multi-item materialism scale for children. The findings indicate that materialism is a relatively stable trait, varying only marginally with age, despite the numerous developmental changes taking place as a child gets older. The study also examined the relationship between materialism and susceptibility to peer influence and found a significant correlation of .44. The findings support the hypothesis that materialism and susceptibility to influence are positively related. This research is critical for better understanding how materialistic attitudes develop and the role peer influence has on these attitudes.
The decade of the 90s has been characterized by a return to basic values. Consumers today are more concerned with quality and value, than prestigious brand names and high prices. Americans are spending less, saving more and borrowing more prudently. While financial security is still important and people are not giving up material goods, there has been a significat increase in the importance placed on core values such as "respect for one another, responsibility for ones actions, and providing a 'loving and caring environment for ones family," (Schwartz, 1991; p. 14). Seventy-five percent of Americans between the ages of 24 to 49 say they would like "to see our country return to a simpler lifestyle with less emphasis on material success," (Henkoff, 1989; p.41). And, the family is holding more importance and becoming a more central value, with 62 percent of working Americans saying, "a happy family life" is the most important indicator of success (Henkoff, 1989; p.41). However, while the majority of Americans report satisfaction with their own family lives, 57 percent believe family values have declined (Schwartz, 1991; p.14).
Likewise, parents and educators have become increasingly concerned with the commercialization and materialistic attitudes of youth today. Children between the ages of 4 to 12 spend an estimated $8.6 billion per year and influence parents purchases by $132 billion per year (McNeal, 1992). And, with the increasing number of single-parent families and dual-income families, the roles children play as consumers are becoming more profound, increasing in terms of both responsibility and diversity. Children are often responsible for purchasing and influencing many of the products purchased, not only for themselves, but also for the household, such as grocery products and cleaning supplies.
Along with concern over childrens growing consumer responsibilities and promotions directed towards children, are concerns that children are developing materialistic values at a rather young age. In fact, attitudes toward materialism as a life goal have increased dramatically from the early 70s to the late 80s in high-school seniors and entering college freshmen (Easterlin and Crimmins, 1991). It seems having the "in" products such as Nike athletic shoes and Starter jackets is extremely important to children, and has resulted in numerous thefts and even attempted murder (Diaz, 1992). In response, many schools have implemented school uniforms as a means of directly controlling individual differences between students from different financial and ethnic backgrounds and indirectly controlling materialism and crime in the schools. So while materialistic values, in general, have declined, there is still concern regarding materialistic values in children.
Studies of materialism with adults have typically focused on defining and measuring materialism (Belk, 1984; Belk, 1985; Richins and Dawson, 1992), generational differences in possessions valued (Belk, 1985; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Kamptner, 1991), and personality and behavior traits associated with materialism (Fournier and Richins, 1991; Braun and Wicklund, 1989; Hunt, Kernan, Chatterjee and Florsheim, 1990). However, very few studies have examined materialistic values in children. The studies that have been done were limited by small sample sizes and qualitative measures such as content analysis and referencing of consumer products in childrens free speech (Dickins and Ferguson, 1957; Lipscomb, 1988). While providing an interesting first look at childrens materialistic attitudes, the validity of these measures is questionable. In addition, other studies having adequate sample sizes and more quantitative measures have focused exclusively on children in their teenage years (Moschis and Churchill, 1978; Ward and Wackman,1971). Virtually no research has been done on childrens attitudes toward materialism across a wide age span, including children of elementary school age through junior and senior high age. Likewise, personality and behavior traits associated with materialism have not been examined at the childrens level. Of particular interest, in this study, is the relationship between materialism in children and susceptibility to peer influence. The issue here is, are children who are more susceptible to influence, also more likely to hold materialistic attitudes? While the adult materialism literature and childrens socialization research shed some light on the issue, the relationshipbetween materialism and susceptibility to influence has not been directly examined. Thus, the purpose of this research is twofold:
(1) to examine the materialistic attitudes of children across a wide age span, using a large sample, and a multi-item materialism scale, and
(2) to examine the relationship between materialistic attitudes in children and susceptibility to peer group influence.
This information is critical for better understanding how materialistic attitudes develop and the role peer group influence has on these attitudes.
The concept of materialism has been defined in a number of ways. Belk (1984, 1985) defines materialism as, "the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. And at the highest levels of materialism, such possessions assume a central place in a persons life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction," (Belk, 1984, p. 291; Belk, 1985, p.265). Personality traits associated with materialism include envy, nongenerosity and possessiveness (Belk, 1984). Ward and Wackman (1971, p. 422) define materialism as, "an orientation which views material goods and money as important for personal happiness and social progress." Richins and Dawson (1992, p. 307) define materialism as representing "a mind-set or constellation of attitudes regarding the relative importance of acquisition and possession of objects in ones life. For materialists, possessions and their acquisition are at the forefront of personal goals that dictate 'ways of life. They value possessions and their acquisition more highly than most other matters and activities in life."
Materialism as a Value.
Materialism has also been discussed in the literature as being a value, and individuals vary in regards to the level at which they subscribe to the value (Richins and Dawson, 1992; Fournier and Richins, 1991). As discussed by Richins and Dawson (1992, p. 307), a value is "an enduring belief . . . having a transcendental quality to it, guiding actions, attitudes, judgements and comparisons across specific objects and situations." Richins and Dawson (1992) conceptualize materialism as a value that guides peoples choices and conduct in a variety of situations and consumption experiences. They suggest that materialism influences the type and quantity of goods purchased and the allocation of resources, including time.
If it is true that materialism is a value or an enduring belief that has a "transcendental quality" guiding actions and attitudes across time and situation, it seems plausible, then, that materialistic attitudes should not vary significantly as a function of age. Empirical support for this hypothesis can be drawn from a study by Ward and Wackman (1971) which found no significant differences between junior and senior high respondents regarding attitudes toward materialism. Thus, the first hypothesis of this study is that materialistic attitudes will not vary significantly by age.
Ho. 1a: Materialistic attitudes will not vary significantly by age.
Cognitive and Social Development.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that as children age, fundamental changes are taking place in terms of cognitive development, psycho-social development, and social development. Consumer socialization is the process by which young people develop consumer-related skills, knowledge and attitudes (Moschis and Churchill, 1978). Theories related to consumer learning typically focus on cognitive development and/or social learning. Cognitive development theories tend to suggest that socialization agents, such as parents, schools, church, peers and mass media, transmit attitudes, motivations and behaviors to the learner through various interactions (Moschis and Churchill, 1978).
Cognitive Development. In order to associate possessions with satisfaction or to envy others' possessions, a minimal level of development is probably necessary. And, as children age, important changes take place in terms of cognitive development. For example, in order to appreciate the psychological value or status associated with owning a given possession, a person must have the ability to think abstractly. Likewise, in order to understand different people's motivations or reasons for owning certain products and that the public and private meanings associated with products may vary, a person must have the ability to take on another's perspective. These cognitive skills have been theorized to develop around age 8, and are fully developed and equal to that of an adult by age 12 (Selman, 1980; Barenboim, 1981). Given that one's cognitive skills tend to become more advanced with age it seems plausible that materialistic attitudes might also become more developed with age.
PsychoSocial Development. Another theory, Erikson's PsychoSocial theory (1972), is somewhat different from cognitive development theories in that it describes change throughout the life span and is more socially-oriented, suggesting that individuals go through eight social-conflict stages in a life time. Of interest, is that in previous research, the possessions most valued by subjects at different ages tended to reflect their psychosocial stage (Kamptner, 1991). For example, in the infant and toddler years the psychosocial task is that of developing a sense of trust and children at this age treasured those possessions promoting comfort and security such as a blanket or a teddy bear. Likewise, during the adolescent years Eriksons task is to develop a sense of self-identity and treasured possessions are those facilitating independence and accomplishment (Belk, 1985). Given that possessions serve as symbols and self-affirmation of ones identity (Belk, 1985; Lipscomb, 1988; Fournier and Richins, 1991), and teenagers are struggling with their self-identities, it seems plausible that older children may hold more materialistic attitudes than younger children.
Social Development. While important changes are taking place cognitively and psycho- socially as children age, they are also becoming more adept socially. As children get older, they develop a larger repertoire of consumer experiences, including simply knowledge about the functional and psychological values or meanings associated with possessions, number of shopping experiences and exposure to advertising which could imply that as children develop greater consumer knowledge and have more exposure to shopping experiences and advertising, their attitudes toward materialism may also become more developed or pronounced.
According to Moschis and Churchill (1978), consumer learning should be viewed not only as a cognitive-psychological process of adjustment to ones environment, but also a social process. As children age their cognitive skills become more sophisticated and their consumer experiences become more vast, which suggests that childrens understanding and attitudes regarding materialism may also become mor advanced with age. Empirical support for this hypothesis can be drawn from a study by Lipscomb (1988), which found that older children were more inclined to mention consumer products or possessions in their free speech than younger children. Likewise, exposure to television appears to facilitate materialistic attitudes and adolescents social motivations for consumption (i.e., self expression through possessions or conspicuous consumption) (Moschis and Churchill, 1978; Ward and Wackman, 1971; Richins, 1987; Belk, 1985). Thus the second hypothesis, which competes with hypothesis 1a, is that materialistic attitudes will increase with age.
Ho. 1b: Materialistic attitudes will increase with age.
Materialism, Personality and Behavior
As previously mentioned, several adult studies have linked various personality and behavior traits with materialism. For example, Belk (1984, 1985) and associates measure materialism with the personality traits: envy, nongenerosity and possessiveness, with the relationship between materialism and envy being positive (Richins and Dawson, 1992). Materialists have also been characterized as acquisitive, pre-occupied with status, competitive and having a need for superiority (Fournier and Richins, 1991). Thus, they are also more likely to show patterns of conspicuous consumption and compulsive consumption (Fournier and Richins, 1991). However, these traits and behaviors may be based upon underlying feelings of insecurity (Fournier and Richins, 1991), poor self-esteem (Richins and Dawson, 1992), and incompleteness or inadequacy (Braun and Wicklund, 1989), which have also been tied to materialism. In a number of studies, materialists have been found to be less satisfied or happy with their lives (Richins, 1987; Belk, 1984; Belk, 1985; Richins and Dawson, 1992; Fournier and Richins, 1991). Materialists have also been characterized as self-centered, alienated, unconcerned for others and social issues, and having weaker interpersonal relationships (Fournier and Richins, 1991). While materialists tend to be unconcerned with others, it is interesting that their reference system tends to be other-oriented, with attributions being based on external factors or factors outside their control rather than being based on an internal locus of control (Hunt, Kernan, Chatterjee and Florsheim, 1990). Surprisingly, while materialistic values have been associated with characteristics such as envy, competitiveness, status-consciousness and conspicuous consumption, its relationship to susceptibility to reference group influence has not been examined. It is to this topic that I now turn.
Susceptibility to Peer Influence
Consumer susceptibility to influence has been defined as "any tendency of the person to change as a function of social pressures" (McGuire, 1968). Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel define it more specifically as, "the need to identify with or enhance ones image in the opinion of significant others through the acquisition and use of products and brands, the willingness to conform to the expectations of others regarding purchase decisions and/or the tendency to learn about products and services by observing others and/or seeking information from others" (Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1989). Basically the construct being referred to is a multidimensional construct representing how predisposed a person is to being influenced. Studies have found that the degree of consumer susceptibility is related to other factors such a self-confidence and self-esteem (Cox and Bauer, 1964; Locander and Hermann, 1979; Berkowitz and Lundy, 1957; Janis and Field, 1959), inner/other orientation (Kassarjian, 1962; Kassarjian, 1971; Janis and Field, 1959), and self-monitoring (Lennox and Wolfe,1984; Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1990), to list only a few.
Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem. Several studies have found an inerse relationship between self-confidence and susceptibility to influence (Locander and Hermann, 1979; Berkowitz and Lundy, 1957; Janis and Field, 1959). Likewise, people low in self-esteem were more likely to comply with others suggestions (Cox and Bauer, 1964) and were higher in susceptibility to influence (Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1990). Since materialistic attitudes have been associated with insecurity or low self-esteem, it seem logical, then, that consumers having more materialistic attitudes would also be more susceptible to influence.
Inner/Other Orientation. The inner/other scale, meaning if one relies more on internal values versus external values, was found to correlate positively with susceptibility to influence (Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1990; Janis and Field, 1959). As previously mentioned, materialists were also found to be more externally-oriented in terms of locus of control (Hunt, et.al., 1990.) Again, this suggests that a positive relationship may exist between materialism and susceptibility to influence.
Self-Monitoring. People high in self monitoring are effective at social integration and adjusting to what is situationally appropriate. And, again, a positive relationship tends to exist between self-monitoring and susceptibility to influence (Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1990). Snyder (1987) suggest that when people are in transitional roles, they are more inclined to be high in self-monitoring because they are often uncertain about how they should act and thus, look to others for guidance. This seems to imply that when people have feelings of inadequacy or insecurity, which is characteristic of materialists, they are higher in self-monitoring and are more susceptible to influence. This implies that a positive correlation should exist between materialism and susceptibility to influence. In conclusion, then, a number of personality traits associated with susceptibility to influence also seem to be related to characteristics or traits associated with materialism. While this research provides insight into the possible relationship between materialism and susceptibility to influence, consumer socialization and materialism research, previously discussed, provides additional evidence.
Consumer Socialization and Materialism Research. Fournier and Richins (1991) describe materialists as "continual information gatherers," who study catalogs and magazines, shop actively and observe what others have. These behaviors seem to imply that consumers high in materialistic values tend to monitor the environment and are influenced by others behaviors and possessions. Likewise, Moschis and Churchill (1978) found a positive relationship between frequency of adolescent communication with peers regarding consumption matters and materialism and social motivations for consumption. They also found as social utility reasons for viewing television shows and advertisements increased, so did materialism and social motivations for consumption. These findings also support the notion that there is a positive relationship between materialism and susceptibility to influence.
Ho. 2: A positive relationship will exist between materialism and susceptibility to peer group influence.
Three hundred children were recruited from the second, third, sixth, seventh and tenth grades within a midwestern school district. The specific ages targeted were 8, 12 and 16, referred to as young, middle and older children. Of those returning parental consent forms and participating in the study, 76 children were in the youngest age group (36 boys, 40 girls), 118 children were in the middle age group (46 boys, 71 girls, 1 not reported), and 106 were in the oldest age group (51 boys and 55 girls). A an incentive, the school district was given a donation and participants were either given a small prize or entered into a drawing for larger prizes.
The study employed a 3 (age) x 3 (susceptibility to influence), between subject design and analysis of variance (Anova) was used to test the hypotheses.
The independent variables were age and susceptibility to influence.
Age. Based on theoretical differences in cognitive and social development, and the hypotheses of interest, three age groups were included in the study: second and third graders, sixth and seventh graders, and tenth graders.
Susceptibility to Influence. The measure of peer group influence was developed from similar scales used in previous studies of reference group influence in adults ( Bearden and Etzel, 1982; Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1989; Childers and Rao, 1992; Park and Lessig, 1977). In modifying the scale for use with children, the number of items was kept at a reasonable number to avoid fatigue, and the scale points were kept at a minimum to make it easier for younger children to respond. The final scale, adapted from the Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel scale (1989), included seven items that children indicated their agreement or disagreement with on a four-point Yes-No scale ("YES" "yes" "no" "NO"). This modified childrens version of the susceptibility to influence scale has been used in previous research (Bachmann, John and Rao, 1993). Childrens responses to the items were summed, based on results indicating that the scale was unidimensional. The scale had a coefficient alpha of .85. Subjects were then divided into three susceptibility to influence groups using the 34th and 67th percentiles. The cutoffs used to divide subjects into low, medium and high susceptibility to influence categories were held constant across age groups.
MATERIALISM MEANS AND STANDARD DEVIATIONS BY AGE
Materialism. The materialism scale used was a 5-item, 4-point YES/NO scale similar to that used by Richins (1987). Children indicated their degree of agreement/disagreement with statements such as, "It is important to me to have really nice things," and "I would like to be rich enough to buy anything I want." [The five items used in the materialism scale are: 1. It is important to me to have really nice things. 2. I would like to be rich enough to buy anything I want. 3. I'd be happier if I could afford to buy more things. 4. It bothers me when friends have things that I don't have. 5. It's really true that money can buy happiness.] Childrens responses to the five items were again summed, based on results indicating that the scale was unidimensional. The coefficient alpha for the materialism scale was .66, which is within the recommended range of .6 to .8 for basic research (e.g., Peter, 1979).
Questionnaires were administered to younger children in their class rooms and junior and senior high students met in the school cafeteria to participate in the study. After receiving general instructions about the study and specific instructions about the YES/NO scale, subjects answered five demographic questions and two practice questions relating to the YES/NO scale, which would be used to measure susceptibility to influence and materialism. The susceptibility to influence and materialism scales were embedded in filler items in order to disguise the true focus of the study. Older students then proceeded to work through the questionnaire independently. To help control for limited reading skills in the youngest age group, the directions and questions were read aloud as the students read along silently. Students in this age group were also required to stay on the same page until all subjects had finished the page. To conclude, subjects were debriefed, given their prizes and thanked for their participation. The study took approximately 30 minutes to complete, with older children finishing sooner.
Age Hypothesis (Ho: 1a and 1b)
Hypotheses 1a and 1b are competing hypotheses regarding the influence of age on childrens development of materialistic attitudes. Hypothesis 1a suggests that materialistic attitudes should not vary as a function of age given that materialism is an enduring belief that is held across time and situations. Hypothesis 1b, though, suggests that given the vast changes in cognitive development, psycho-social development and social development that tend to correspond with age, materialistic attitudes may become more developed as a child ages.
The means and standard deviations are shown in Table 1.
By examining the means, it appears that there may be a non-monotonic effect with middle aged children being higher in materialism than the other two groups. However, the results of the statistical analysis in this study do not strongly bare this out. Childrens responses to the materialism scale were analyzed using a 3 (age) by 3 (susceptibility to influence) between subject ANOVA design. The ANOVA results are presented in Table 2.
By examining Table 2, it seems that the results of this study are more inclined to support hypothesis 1a, in that, despite the numerous developmental changes taking place as a child gets older, the materialistic attitudes of one age group were not significantly different, at the .05 level, from those of other age groups. [There were also no significant differences in materialism between any two age groups.]
Since the cutoffs used to divide subjects into low, medium, and high susceptibility to influence were held constant across ages, it was possible to further examine these findings by looking at age differences within each level of susceptibility to influence. Again, materialistic attitudes did not vary significantly by age within each level of susceptibility to influence. This finding is also evidenced by the fact that the age by susceptibility to influence interaction effect was not significant. Thus, we can conclude that materialism is a relatively stable trait that does not vary dramatically as a function of age for children between the ages of 8 and 16.
Susceptibility to Influence Hypothesis (Ho: 2)
Hypothesis 2 suggests that the relationship between materialism and susceptibility to influence is positive in nature, meaning children who are more susceptible to influence may also hold more materialistic values. While this study is based on descriptive research, it can not necessarily be inferred that susceptibility to influence causes materialistic attitudes or that materialistic attitudes cause susceptibility to influence. However, the study found a significant correlation of .44, suggesting that there is a positive relationship between susceptibility to influence and materialism. The materialism means and standard deviations are shown in Table 3.
By examining the means in Table 3, it becomes clear that, regardless of age, children who are higher in susceptibility to influence also tend to be more materialistic. The ANOVA results presented in Table 2, provide similar findings, with the susceptibility to influence main effect being significant (p<.01), across all age groups and within each specific age group. [All three susceptibility to influence groups (low, medium and high) are significantly different from each other at the .05 level using modified LSD contrasts.] The age by susceptibility to influence interaction effect was not significant (p>.20).
ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE FOR MATERIALISM
MATERIALISM MEANS AND STANDARD DEVIATIONS BY SUSCEPTIBILITY TO INFLUENCE AND AGE
Several studies in the literature report gender differences with males tending to be more materialistic than females (Lipscomb, 1988; Belk, 1984; Moschis and Churchill, 1978). Although there were no hypotheses relating to gender proposed in this study, the data support previous gender research findings in that male respondents, having a mean score of 14.21, were significantly higher in their materialistic values (p<.05) , than female respondents, aving a mean score of 13.35.
The decade of the 90s has been characterized by a return to basic values, with materialistic attitudes and conspicuous consumption being on the decline. However, parents and educators have become increasingly concerned with the commercialization and materialistic attitudes of youth. Children are considered an important and influential target market, whose consumer roles have become more profound, in terms of both responsibility and diversity. While children have become an increasingly attractive market, their attitudes toward materialism have also become more evident. Popular products, such as Nike athletic shoes or Starter jackets, are not only desired, but demanded by children. And many schools have implemented school uniform policies in an attempt to curb materialistic attitudes and resulting crime.
While considerable materialism research has been conducted with adults, very few studies have examined the materialistic values of children. Likewise, personality and behavior traits commonly associated with materialism have not been studied at the childrens level. More specifically, no research has directly examined the relationship between materialism and susceptibility to influence. Thus, the purpose of this study was to examine the materialistic attitudes of children, ranging in age from 8 to 16, and to examine the relationship between materialistic attitudes in children and susceptibility to influence.
Three hundred children, ages 8, 12 and 16, participated in the research study and the data was analyzed using analysis of variance procedures. The results seem to indicate that materialism is a fairly stable trait, varying only marginally with age, despite the numerous developmental changes taking place as a child gets older. A significant, positive correlation of .44 was also found between materialism and susceptibility to influence. Likewise, children who were more susceptible to peer influence, had significantly higher materialism scores across all three age groups studied. These findings appear to support the hypothesis that materialism and susceptibility to peer influence are positively related. Since these findings are based on descriptive research, though, it can not be inferred that susceptibility to influence causes materialistic attitudes or that materialistic attitudes cause susceptibility to influence.
While this research provides valuable insight regarding the development of materialistic attitudes and the relationship between materialism and susceptibility to influence, additional research is warranted. Given that the relationship between materialism and susceptibility to influence has not been previously studied, it is important to test the validity of this finding with adults. In addition, as previously mentioned, a limitation of the current research is that it is descriptive in nature and thus, can not demonstrate cause and effect. It is necessary to further explore the relationship between materialism and susceptibility to peer influence using an experimental methodological design in order to better understand the causal relationship between these two variables. Likewise, given that values are culturally and socially defined, a longitudinal study would provide additional insight into the development of materialistic attitudes. Other factors that may play a role and should be examined include family income, social class, household size, parental age and parental susceptibility to influence. Research in this area should also be extended across geographical and ethnic backgrounds, given that previous adult research suggests that differences in materialistic values exist based on ethnic background (Crispell, 1993). This research is valuable to parents and educators responsible for establishing school and social policy. It is imperative that adequate information be available regarding the development of materialism and its relationship to oter personality and behavioral traits given the many negative consequences associated with materialism, such as compulsive buying, conspicuous consumption, unhappiness, low self-esteem, greed, and poor interpersonal relationships .
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