An Exploration of Materialism and Consumption-Related Affect

Marsha L. Richins, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Kim K. R. McKeage, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Debbie Najjar, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
ABSTRACT - Consumers high in materialism believe that acquisition and consumption are necessary to their satisfaction in life and that expanded levels of consumption will make them happier. This paper reports two exploratory studies that examine whether consumption increases these desired positive feelings among materialists in the short term. Findings suggest that consumption leads to no more positive feelings among materialists than it does among consumers low in materialism. Furthermore, materialists experience stronger negative feelings after acquisition than do consumers low in materialism. The implications for materialistic behavior are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Marsha L. Richins, Kim K. R. McKeage, and Debbie Najjar (1992) ,"An Exploration of Materialism and Consumption-Related Affect", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 229-236.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 229-236


Marsha L. Richins, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Kim K. R. McKeage, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Debbie Najjar, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Consumers high in materialism believe that acquisition and consumption are necessary to their satisfaction in life and that expanded levels of consumption will make them happier. This paper reports two exploratory studies that examine whether consumption increases these desired positive feelings among materialists in the short term. Findings suggest that consumption leads to no more positive feelings among materialists than it does among consumers low in materialism. Furthermore, materialists experience stronger negative feelings after acquisition than do consumers low in materialism. The implications for materialistic behavior are discussed.


Starting with Alexis de Tocqueville (1835), materialism has been identified as a dominant characteristic of American society. In a similar vein, recent writers have characterized the United States as a society in which people engage in an obsessive striving after things and a mindless indulgence in them (Schudson 1984), where consumers use as their primary indicator of success the number and cost of the items they possess (Arensberg and Niehoff 1975), and where young people increasingly value the means to acquire possessions over other goals in life (Green and Astin 1985). Despite a presidential call for a kinder, gentler nation and recent claims that greed has diminished, a study by an influential advertising agency predicts that materialism will be a driving force in American society for at least the next decade (Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide 1989).

Descriptions of contemporary American culture are often accompanied by criticisms of materialism and a plea for consumers to reduce the importance they place on acquisition and consumption. Among other negative consequences, critics have described the ecological and environmental costs of excessive consumption, the inability of the earth's resources to meet the consumption demands of all inhabitants (e.g., Leiss 1976), and the personal and interpersonal damage that can result from an overemphasis on acquisition and possession (e.g., Fromm 1976).

To understand materialism, it is necessary to comprehend the attitudes and processes associated with materialistic values. This paper reports two exploratory studies that examine one of these processes--the affect experienced by materialists during consumption.

There are several reasons to suspect that affective processes are implicated in materialism. After reviewing the writings on materialism, Belk (1984, p. 291) summarized the common themes by defining materialism as "the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. At the highest levels of materialism, such possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction." The literature abounds with descriptions of materialists as perceiving their happiness to depend on the acquisition of possessions. Fournier and Richins (1991), in a study of popular notions concerning materialism, found that lay people describe materialistic individuals in a similar manner, noting that "they have to have the material things ... in order for them to be happy" and "their happiness is dependent on whether they get what they want." According to theoretical and popular conceptions, materialistic consumers expect the acquisition of possessions to improve their well-being.

Does acquisition make materialists happy? Do they actually experience the positive affect they expect from consumption? Because the motivation for materialists' pursuit of consumption is to improve well-being, it is reasonable to ask whether they in fact obtain more pleasure from consumption than those low in materialism. The exploratory studies reported here address this question.

Does Consumption Lead to Happiness?

Theoreticians, philosophers, and critics have debated for centuries whether acquisition and consumption lead to happiness. Certainly, there are reasons to expect that having more things can improve well-being. Possessions play an important role in defining the self and providing meaning in life (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). They also provide functional benefits. Labor-saving devices can make life easier and allow tasks to be completed more quickly so that more time is available for pleasurable activities. Other possessions such as skis, sailboats, or color television sets enhance certain leisure activities and make them more enjoyable. Ownership of possessions such as one's home or expensive jewelry can provide financial security and create a sense of confidence or contentment. For these reasons, the acquisition of possessions is expected to generate positive emotions.

Critics, however, have described materialists' acquisition of products as "mindless" and without purpose. According to many, materialists who expect to achieve happiness through possessions are doomed to discontent and dissatisfaction because acquisition goals rise endlessly (e.g., Veblen 1899; Wachtel 1983) and because the truly important satisfactions in life come not from things but from relationships with others or development of the self (e.g., Fromm 1976).

Empirical tests of the relationship between consumption and happiness are limited, but two types of studies have indirect bearing on the issue. Researchers have looked at the relationship between happiness and income, or the capacity to acquire, and within a single culture find positive correlations (e.g., Easterlin 1974). Other studies, however, have examined the link between materialism and happiness, and these show a different picture. Belk (1984), Richins (1987), and Richins and Dawson (1991), using different measures of materialism, all found negative relationships between materialism and happiness or life satisfaction. Taken together, these two types of studies suggest that acquisition can improve happiness, but not necessarily for those who most believe their happiness to depend on acquisition.

The studies described above have examined happiness or satisfaction at a global level by asking respondents to stand back, as it were, and make an assessment of their general condition in life. The research reported here assesses happiness by looking at positive and negative emotions associated with a specific event--the purchase and consumption of a product--and examining its relationship with materialism. Two studies were carried out. The first looks at purchases which respondents reported as making them happy. The second looks at a broader range of purchases and assesses the affect associated with them.


In the first study, respondents described purchases that made them happy and reported on the kind of feelings they experienced during and after the purchase. The responses of those high and low in materialism were compared.


Data were collected using an open-ended survey format. Respondents were told to think back to purchases they had made and then asked if they could think of a particular purchase that had made them happy. Every respondent was able to identify such a purchase. Respondents were then asked to describe the product and purchase circumstances and to describe the feelings they experienced while making the purchase and during the subsequent few weeks. The questionnaire asked them to elaborate on pleasant and unpleasant feelings. The questionnaire concluded with the Richins and Dawson (1991) materialism measure (alpha=.87) and some demographic items.

Data were collected from a convenience sample of 48 adult consumers. About half of these were consumers approached in various public settings, such as at a local shopping mall or while riding the bus. The rest were bank, hospital, and library employees approached at their place of work. Demographic characteristics of the sample are reported in Table 1.


In analyses the sample was first taken as a whole, then divided into low and high materialism segments. To achieve group separation for the subgroup analysis, the 8 respondents closest to the median on the materialism scale were not classified; remaining respondents were classed as low (n=20) or high (n=20) in materialism if their score was below or above the median, respectively.

Purchases leading to happiness. In the examination of the entire sample, the purchases most frequently mentioned by respondents as generating happy feelings were of clothing or accessories (mentioned by 29.2% of respondents). A wide range of clothing items was mentioned, from a wedding dress to a pair of shorts. Automobiles were also frequently mentioned (22.9%). The rest of the products mentioned fell into a variety of categories. Most (87.5%) were durable goods (e.g, grand piano, books), but such consumables as ice cream, flowers, and hair conditioner were also mentioned.

When the responses of those low and high materialism were examined, no particular patterns were evident. The largest difference was for the clothing/ accessories category: 40.0% of those high in materialism were more likely to mention a clothing purchase as generating happiness while 15.0% of those low in materialism mentioned such a purchase. Because of the small sample size, however, this difference must be viewed with caution.

Emotions associated with the purchase. Respondents were asked about the feelings they experienced during and after the purchase and were prompted to describe both "pleasant" and "unpleasant" feelings. All respondents reported positive emotions, as expected given the nature of the task (describing a purchase that made them happy). Frequently mentioned emotions are shown in Tables 2 and 3. Of the pleasant emotions, "happiness" or "pleasure" was mentioned most frequently (by 85.4% of respondents), followed by "excitement" (33.3%), and "anticipation" (20.8%). Less expected was the frequency with which negative emotions were mentioned. Half of the respondents mentioned being either "anxious" (37.5%) or "afraid" (12.5%), and other unpleasant emotions were also mentioned. Separate analysis of respondents low and high in materialism found no significant differences, although consumers low in materialism appear to be somewhat more likely to experience excitement and anticipation concerning the purchase than those high in materialism.


All respondents could readily describe purchases that made them happy, but the differences between low and high materialists in the products generating happiness and the types of emotions experienced were very small. The things that make one happy appear to be idiosyncratic and perhaps situation specific.

Failure to find differences by materialism level may have been due in part to the type of purchase situation covered in the questionnaire in that respondents were asked to describe a happy consumption experience. Study 2 was carried out to examine purchases that were not self-selected for the happiness they induced. Instead, in Study 2 respondents were asked to describe an important purchase" they had made, and the affect associated with these purchases was examined.





The questionnaire used for data collection included both open-ended items and items with fixed response alternatives. Respondents were first asked to "think of any important purchases you've made within the last month or so" and described several characteristics of the purchase. If they hadn't made an important purchase in this time period, they were asked to respond for their most recent important purchase.

Respondents were then shown a list of 24 emotions. This set was chosen from the lists provided by those who have assessed the structure of affect (de Rivera 1984; Shaver et al. 1987; Storm and Storm 1987), from other studies of product-related feelings (Gardner and Rook 1988; Schultz, Kleine, and Kernan 1989; Westbrook 1987), and from the emotions described by respondents in Study 1. Respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which the product made them feel each of the emotions in the first few weeks after purchase using a response scale that ranged from 0 (not at all) to 5 (very much). They then completed the Richins and Dawson (1991) materialism measure (alpha = .86) and demographic items. Three versions of the questionnaire in which the order of the emotion items varied were used.

Data were collected from a convenience sample of 107 adult consumers who were approached in a variety of settings similar to those of Study 1. Demographic characteristics of the sample are shown in Table 1.


As in Study 1, analyses were first carried out for the sample as a whole and then on the low and high materialism subgroups. The 19 respondents closest to the median on the materialism scale were not classified into subgroups; remaining respondents were classed as low (n=44) or high (n=44) in materialism if their score was below or above the median, respectively.



Types of Products for Important Purchases. As might be expected from the marketing literature on product importance (e.g., Bloch and Richins 1983), the kind of purchases described as important by respondents were generally expensive, durable items (e.g., cars, television sets) and socially visible products (e.g., clothing, furniture). Electronic equipment (television sets, stereos, personal computers) was mentioned most frequently (20.6%), followed by vehicles (18.7%) and clothing (11.2%).

Subsequent analyses compare low and high materialists with respect to the affect experienced following purchase. If the two groups differ in the kinds of products or consumption experiences they are describing, however, any observed differences in affect may be due to the different products involved rather than their degree of materialism. An examination of Table 4 reveals that there were no differences between low and high materialism respondents in terms of the type of product involved in the purchase reported. There were also no differences between the two groups in terms of product cost, length of time respondents had wanted the product before purchase, and how recently it had been purchased (p > .05).



Purchase-related Emotions. Table 5 shows the percentage of respondents who reported they had experienced each of the 24 emotions with respect to the product (that is, they assigned the emotion a value greater than zero on the response scale). Positive affect predominated, with happiness, excitement, and pleasure experienced most frequently. Negative emotions were less common, with nervousness experienced most frequently (36.4%), followed by guilt (26.1%) and fear (25.2%). The positive and negative emotions reported concerning the "important" purchases of Study 2 are consistent with those described in Study 1 for happiness-inducing purchases.

When low and high materialists were compared on the frequency of reported affect, there was only one significant difference: high materialists were more likely than low materialists to report envy (p < .05). When comparing intensity of affect, however, several significant differences occurred. Those high in materialism reported stronger feelings of anger, disappointment, irritation, fear, nervousness, and envy (p < .05). At a borderline level of significance (p < .10), they also scored higher on feeling guilty and unfulfilled.

Because of the increase in experiment-wide error rate that accompanies multiple t-tests, a second approach was used to examine affective responses in which the 24 emotion items were subjected to a principal components analysis. Using the scree test criterion, two factors were retained, together accounting for 46% of the variance in the affect items. Loadings are shown in Table 5. The first factor has high loadings for 14 negatively valenced emotions, the second factor has high loadings for 10 positively valenced emotions. This dimensional representation is consistent with that obtained in several other studies of affect (e.g., Watson and Tellegen 1985; Westbrook 1987; Zevon and Tellegen 1982). Summed scores were created from responses to the 14 negative and to the 10 positive affect items; coefficient alpha for the negative and positive emotion scales were .88 and .87, respectively.



The correlation between materialism and the positive affect scale was .08 (p > .10). Because the negative affect scale was highly skewed, a square root transformation was used; the correlation between materialism and negative affect was .31 (p < .001; correlation for the untransformed scale was .27, p < .01). Rather than experiencing more positive affect than non-materialists, consumers high in materialism seem to experience more negative affect following acquisition.


Like earlier studies of cable television and car purchases (Westbrook 1987) and of impulse purchases (Gardner and Rook 1988), the two studies reported here found a wide range of both positive and negative emotional reactions to purchases. Although both of the earlier studies found negative emotions to follow a purchase, we were somewhat surprised at the high incidence of negative affect following purchase events that respondents described as particularly happy. The largest category of negative affect involved anxiety and related states.

The most surprising aspect of the research, however, concerns the relationships between materialism and consumption-related affect. Materialists expect acquisition to make them happier, and at least in the short run (the first few weeks after purchase), they report experiencing happiness and other positive affect concerning the product. However, the level of positive affect generated by the product is no greater for materialists than for nonJ-materialists.

Where the two types of consumers do differ is with respect to negative affect following purchase. High materialists experienced stronger feelings of anxiety, guilt, and other negative emotions in the weeks after purchase than did those low in materialism. One potential explanation for this finding has to do with the centrality of consumption in materialists' day-to-day existence. Because consumption is so important to them, they may have higher expectations for what a new possession will accomplish in their lives. With higher expectations, the chances for disappointment increase, and indeed disappointment was greater among those high in materialism. In addition, high expectations increase the chances for cognitive dissonance and generalized anxiety about the correctness of product choice. Finally, purchase of an expensive product can ignite feelings of envy among materialists as they scan the marketplace and the possessions of others, realizing perhaps that the television set, furniture, or automobile they can afford is not as well equipped, as luxurious, or of the quality they desire.

These negative feelings have implications for materialists' subsequent behavior. Because they believe that more consumption will make them happier, the way to erase the negative feelings, in their view, is to consume more. This is one possible mechanism for the perpetuation of the vicious cycle of consumption described by many critics of materialism (Brickman and Campbell 1971; Linden 1979; Wachtel 1983).



The research described here is an exploratory attempt to assess the potential value of examining materialism and affective processes. Future research can extend our knowledge by exploring different aspects of the materialism-affect link and by studying affect itself in different ways. In this study, a two dimensional representation of affect was used. Although this is an improvement over early research that treated affect as a single, bipolar dimension, there have been criticisms of the two-dimensional approach as inadequate (e.g., Shaver et al., 1987; Smith and Ellsworth 1985). Future research on materialism and affect should be designed to test more complex representations of emotion.

Future research should also be directed at determining why the various kinds of affect, especially negative, occur among materialists. Depth interviews probing the reasons for disappointment, anxiety, and envy in particular instances would provide a more textured picture of the relationships between materialists and their possessions.

Another approach would be to examine the long-run affective relationships materialists have with their possessions. Materialistic people are often perceived to be wasteful, quickly becoming disaffected with their acquisitions and desiring new ones, and studies covering a longer time period can test the validity of this perception and explain the reasons for this disaffection, if it does indeed occur. Does it result from a decline in positive feelings about the product, for instance, or from an increase in negative affect such as envy and anxiety?

Examination of pre-purchase affect would round out the picture of materialists' affective processes in a different direction. Studies that look at anticipatory affect in conjunction with pre-purchase expectations about how one's life will be affected by the acquisition would be an opportunity to link the affective and cognitive processes of materialists.

The research reported here demonstrates that affective processes play a role in materialism. As future research examines these processes in greater detail, we may gain new and valuable clues about the nature of materialism and why it persists.


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