Materialistic Values, Relative Wealth and Person Perception: Social Psychological Belief Systems of Adolescents From Different Socio-Economic Backgrounds

ABSTRACT - This paper aims to develop a social psychological perspective on a particular dimension of materialism as an orientation towards consumer society: the perception of other people in the context of their material goods and relative wealth. It examines the extent to which social class differences exist when British adolescents form first impressions of an affluent or less affluent person, and it also asssesses whether person perception in a material context is influenced by a perceiver's endorsement of a materialistic outlook as an individual value orientation. Findings suggest that both British working-class and middle-class adolescents agree on the predominantly positive qualities of affluent as compared to less affluent individuals, and that materialistic values influence impressions only to the extent that aspects of wealth and poverty stereotypes are reproduced in a more or less pronounced fashion.



Citation:

Helga Dittmar and Lucy Pepper (1992) ,"Materialistic Values, Relative Wealth and Person Perception: Social Psychological Belief Systems of Adolescents From Different Socio-Economic Backgrounds", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 40-45.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 40-45

MATERIALISTIC VALUES, RELATIVE WEALTH AND PERSON PERCEPTION: SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL BELIEF SYSTEMS OF ADOLESCENTS FROM DIFFERENT SOCIO-ECONOMIC BACKGROUNDS

Helga Dittmar, Psychology Division, Social Sciences, University of Sussex

Lucy Pepper, Psychology Division, Social Sciences, University of Sussex

ABSTRACT -

This paper aims to develop a social psychological perspective on a particular dimension of materialism as an orientation towards consumer society: the perception of other people in the context of their material goods and relative wealth. It examines the extent to which social class differences exist when British adolescents form first impressions of an affluent or less affluent person, and it also asssesses whether person perception in a material context is influenced by a perceiver's endorsement of a materialistic outlook as an individual value orientation. Findings suggest that both British working-class and middle-class adolescents agree on the predominantly positive qualities of affluent as compared to less affluent individuals, and that materialistic values influence impressions only to the extent that aspects of wealth and poverty stereotypes are reproduced in a more or less pronounced fashion.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

Material goods clearly play an eminent role in everyday social life. Material goods obviously serve functional and pragmatic purposes, but they also form an intricate system of material symbols. Cars are an obvious example. A Rolls Royce is still one of do declared status symbols in England, whereas a sporty Porsche with an elongated bonnet can be heard described as a phallic car, which is the outer manifestation of the driver's macho identity. In his book To Have or To Be?, Erich Fromm argues that:

.. having acquired a new car, the owner has actually acquired a new piece of ego (p. 78).

And it would appear that the driver of this white Porsche has taken Fromm's statement to heart:

FIGURE 1

THE DRIVER'S 'EGO'

The point I would like to emphasise is that not only cars, but possessions generally, can function as material symbols of identity. they express an individual's personal qualities on the one hand, and their social standing on the other (Dittmar, 1992). Yet, systematic research on the social psychological significance of material possessions and consumer goods has just begun to appear (e.g., Dittmar, 1992; Lunt & Livingstone, in press; Rudmin, 1991). The psychological research on material possessions to date has tended to be fragmented, but it is nevertheless possible to distinguish three different, broad theoretical frameworks:

1. BIOLOGICAL: The 'acquisitive instinct'

2. INDIVIDUAL-CENTERED: The functions possessions fulfil for individuals

3. SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONIST: Possessions as material symbols of identity

The usefulness of conceptualising the relationship between people and material goods as the consequence of a biologically-based, acquisitive disposition has been questioned on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Essentially, relevant anthropological, child development, and ethological evidence documents the pronounced historical and sociocultural diversity of people's relationships with material goods (e.g., Beaglehole, 1932; Belk, 1984; Douglas & Isherwood, 1979; Wallendorf & Arnould, 1988). Thus, it cannot support more than the inference of a biological substratum to materialistic behaviour at such an abstract and diluted level that instinctual or human sociobiological accounts inevitably lose their explanatory power (of. Dittmar, 1992; Trasler, 1982).

The individual-centered framework encompasses a variety of research efforts which examine specific psychological meanings or functions of material goods. This perspective shares with the third, social constructionist, framework the well-supported assumption that possessions are perceived as a part of the self: as self-extensions (e.g., Belk, 1988). However, in contrast to the third perspective, its level of analysis is intraindividual or, at best, interpersonal. A prominent example is Furby's model, which postulates that the psychological significance of material possessions lies mainly in the quasi-physical control they afford their owners over their material and social environment (e.g., Furby, 1980, 1991). Without a doubt, the individual-centered approach is valuable in its own right, but it tends to neglect the more explicitly social and symbolic features of possessions, which are exactly those aspects given most attention by the social constructionist framework.

From this perspective, material goods are viewed as symbols of identity whose meanings are socially constituted. A porsche cannot function as a symbol of virile, masculine identity unless at least the owner's reference group shares the belief that the car is indeed masculine. Evidence which supports this social symbolic view comes from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, sociology, gerontology, abnormal psychology or criminology (see Dittmar, 1992). Material possessions can thus be viewed as symbols of identity on a social level: social class, gender, status, or membership in social groups. But they also symbolise more personal aspects of identity: individual qualities, values and attitudes, one's life-history, or relationships with others. They therefore play a profound role for social psychological functioning in terms of self-perception, other-perception and social cognition generally. The beginning of a similar shift in theoretical perspective from an individual-centered to a social-symbolic level of analysis can also be observed in consumer research; an emphasis on the psychological, social and cultural significance of material goods beyond purchase and beyond marketing concerns (e.g., Belk, 1988; Hirschman, 1981; McCracken, 1990; Solomon, 1993).

MATERIALISM AS SOCIALLY SHARED REPRESENTATIONS AND AS AN INDIVIDUAL VALUE SYSTEM

With respect to consumption symbolism, one important implication of the proposed social constructionist perspective on material possessions as symbols of identity is that the identity of others is visible in objectified form, as well as one's own. This leads to the proposition that people place, and evaluate others in a social context in which possessions form an important part: first impressions formed about others are heavily influenced by the material objects they own (e.g., Burroughs et al. 1991). ft appears that possession-based inferences about others' identities involve, first of all, categorical judgements about social identity (e.g., social class, lifestyle, occupation) which, in turn, give rise to self-expressive evaluations about personal identity (individual qualities and values) (Dittmar, 1991b, 1992; Dittmar et al., 19139). A recent conceptual analysis of materialism identified the evaluation of one's own and others' success and well-being by the number and quality of material possessions owned as one of its central themes (Foumier & Richins, 1991; Richins, 1991). The impact of material goods on first impressions could therefore be seen as a facet of materialism at the level of social perception. The main expectation is that a person's material possessions will profoundly influence our perception of their social standing and, in turn, their personal qualities.

In contrast to this social representations perspective, materialism has been conceptualised as an individual value orientation (e.g., Belk, 1985; Richins, 1991). For example, individuals who strongly endorse materialistic values have been shown to hold more unrealistic expectations about the supposed psychological and social benefits they believe consumer goods will give them than people who are less materialistic (Richins, 1991). From this viewpoint of materialism as an individual difference variable, it can be argued that the perception of others should be more strongly influenced by possessions for people high in materialism than for those low in materialism. Individually held materialistic values may thus moderate the ways in which socially shared representations about relative wealth and identity inform impressions.

MATERIAL POSSESSIONS AND SOCIAL CLASS

Despite recent arguments that traditional social class boundaries are breaking down due to the purchasibility of 'lifestyles' (e.g., Askegaard, 1991), it can nevertheless still be argued that a person's socio-material location exerts a profound influence on both their capability for and orientation towards consumption of material goods. Social classes differ in self-concept, values and consumption goals (e.g., Coleman, 1983). Working-class people have a short-term outlook on consumer goods with a preference for instrumental and recreational possessions to ease everyday life and fill their leisure time. In contrast, middle-class people value possessions which serve symbolic needs in terms of status, personal history and self-expression, showing a long-term perspective (Dittmar, 1991a). This suggests that, firstly, endorsement of materialistic values may be related systematically to a person's social-material position, possibly reflecting differential concerns with material and psychological security. Secondly, perception of others' identities on the basis of material possessions may differ according to the perceiver's social-material background.

The implication that people from different socio-economic backgrounds may therefore form different impressions of affluent and less affluent individuals is supported by social identity theory, which essentially postulates that people are motivated to view members of their own and similar social categories in a positive light (ingroup favouritism), which bolsters their self-image (e.g., Taifel, 1984). With respect to the research described in this paper, this approach would suggest that working-class adolescents should perceive an affluent person (or a less affluent person) differently to middle-class adolescents.

However, research on lay explanations for wealth and poverty shows that people emphasis individual effort and merit: they bell"* that people become affluent because they are intelligent, hard-working, skillful and successful, whereas less affluent people are viewed as lazy, unmotivated and lacking in abilities and skills (e.g., Furnharn & Lewis, 1986; Mlson, 1981). At least indirectly, such notions can be regarded as dominant representations in the sense that the status quo must be fair if wealth differentials are seen as the product of individual merit, and in the sense that they entail self-blame for the poor and disadvantaged. Work on political and economic socialisation indicates that children and adolescents come to increasingly endorse dominant representations about the social and economic world, quite irrespective of social class (e.g., Baldus & Tribe, 1978; Connell, 1983). Thus, such a dominant representations approach suggests that adolescents from different socia-economic backgrounds may therefore form essentially similar impressions by drawing on a societally shared frame of reference about what individuals from affluent or less affluent backgrounds are like.

THE IMPACT OF MATERIAL CONTEXT ON PERCEIVED IDENTITY: IMPRESSIONS OF ADOLESCENTS FROM DIFFERENT SOCIO-ECONOMIC GROUPS (STUDY 1)

For this study, a person (one female or one male) was filmed in either relatively affluent or inaffluent surroundings (e.g., kitchen, living-room, car). This resulted in four short videos: 'poor' woman, 'poor' man, 'affluent' woman, 'affluent' man. Because the same person was filmed in both an affluent and a less affluent context, any differences in impressions formed about that person can be related unambiguously to differences in material circumstances. The videos did not portray extreme wealth or extreme poverty, but the material possessions displayed corresponded either to a middle-class context or a less affluent context with basic essentials. 112 adolescents took part in this study (aged 16-18), half from an affluent middle-class background and half from a working-class background (see Dittmar, in press, for full empirical details). In small groups, they were shown one of the videos. They then evaluated the person they had watched in terms of various personal qualities and described the material similarity between the video setting and their parental homes.

The middle-class adolescents saw the affluent video as more similar to their parental homes (X=5.2) than the inaffluent video (X=2.1), whereas the reverse emerged I or the working-class adolescents (X = 3.6, X = 4.5; F1,96=89.65; p<.0001). [All data were collected in the form of 7-point likert scales and analysed by 2 (Social class) x 2 (Material setting) x 2 (Target sex) x 2 (Respondent sex) ANOVAs (see Dittmar, in press, for details).] Ratings of the video target's personal qualities were summarised into six dimensions, which fall into two broad categories. Firstly, dominance qualities, comprising control, forcefulness, self-sufficiency and abilities/resources (e.g., intelligent, successful, educated) and, secondly, affective-expressive qualitites: perceived warmth and individuality. The main findings were that the working-class and middle-class adolescents did not differ in their impressions of the video character (F8,91 =0.95; n.s.), but that impressions differed only the basis of the material setting the video character had appeared in (F6,91 = 26.09; p < .0001). Thus, for five out of six identity dimensions, the 'wealthy' video target was seen as significantly different from the 'poor' person, and, moreover, the two groups of adolescents agreed in their ratings of these identity dimensions:

FIGURE 2

PERCEIVED IDENTITY AND MATERIAL CONTEXT (VIDEO)

Both groups of adolescents saw the wealthy person as more intelligent, successful and educated, as well as more in control of their life and environment than the less privileged character. A similar, but less pronounced, trend emerged also for forcefulness, whereas perceived autonomy  [significant higher order interaction findings for the sixth dimension, autonomy, are more complex, but do not offer support for social identity theory (see Dittmar, in press, for details).] hardly differed. In contrast to these dominance qualities, the poomer video person emerged as warmer, friendlier and more self-expressive, i.e. was seem more favourably in terms of affective-expressive qualities by both groups of adolescents. This implies that representations about the identity of wealthy as compared to less affluent individuals are shared across different socio-economic groups, in contrast to the 'ingroup favouritism' expected by social identity theory.

MATERIAL CONTEXT AND PERCEIVED IDENTITY: THE INFLUENCE OF MATERIALISTIC VALUES (STUDY 2)

The main question addressed in this second study is whether materialism as an individual value orientation affects the way in which middle-class and working-class adolescents perceive the identity of a person who is portrayed as either affluent or lacking in expensive possessions. At the same time, it may reveal social class differences in materialism. For this study, vignettes were created which described either a young woman or man in either a relatively wealthy or a less affluent setting (e.g., car, furniture, housing, kitchen and bathroom appliances, etc.), resulting in four different person descriptions (a sample vignette is included as an appendix). 168 adolescents took part in this study: 93 from a lower to upper middle-class background and 75 from a working-class background (aged 14-16). Groups of adolescents read one of the four person descriptions and then described and evaluated the person in terms of earnings, personal qualities and deservingness of their material circumstances. They also indicated whether they liked the person and whether they aspired to his or her lifestyle. Finally, they completed a measure of materialism as a general value orientation (Richins, 1991). Using Richins' (1991) materialism measure, it was found that the working-class adolescents endorsed materialistic values more strongly (X = 79.17) than the middle-class adolescents (X=75.12) (F1,139=.91; p<.05). Materialistic values were not related to earnings estimates, but the middle-class adolescents perceived greater wage differences between the person with many and with few expensive possessions than the working-class adolescents. The evaluations of the person described in the vignette were summarised into three dimensions  [Factor analysis (principal components, orthogonal varimax rotation) produced three dimensions, which explained 62.9% of the total variance (abilities & resources 29.8%, warmth 23.2% and deservingness 9.9%).]:

ABILITIES AND RESOURCES (e.g., intelligent, successful)

WARMTH (e.g., caring, has many friends)

DESERVINGNESS (e.g., has more than s/he deserves)

Instead of differences between the working-class and middle-class adolescents [Factor scores (estimated by regression) were analysed by a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 MANOVA, which revealed a multivariate tendency for the Material Setting x Social class interaction, F3,137 = 2.18; p <. 10, but showed a univariate effect only for the third, weakest dimension, Fl,139=5.22; P<.05, indicating that the middle-class adolescents], it was found that impressions differed only on the basis of the material circumstances described in the vignette [The MANOVA revealed highly significant main effects for Material setting at the multivariate (F3,137=53.47; p<.0001) and the univariate level (abilities, FI,139=69.97; p<.0001; warmth, Fl,13,=16.59; p <.0005; deservingness, F1, 139 = 14.14; p <.0005).] (see Figure 2, non-adjusted means). Both working-class and middle-class adolescents saw the affluent vignette character as much more intelligent, successful and hard-working than the lose well-off person. Moreover, s/he had the life" all adolescents aspired to. In contrast, the affluent person was seen as less caring, having less friends, being lose happy and lose attractive as a potential friend. The affluent person was also seen as somebody who definitely had more expensive possessions than they deserved, but who was nevertheless likely to be envious of others who possessed more:

FIGURE 3

PERCEIVED IDENTITY AND RELATIVE WEALTH (VIGNETTE)

One of the most interesting aspects of this study concerns the potential Impact of materialistic values on these impressions. Endorsing a materialistic outlook does influence impressions overall, but is related significantly only to the perception of the first identity dimension (intelligent, successful, etc.) [The 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 MANOVA was rerun with materialism (individual total score) as a co-variate. If materialistic values are an important influence on person perception, the co-variance analysis should reveal systematic relationships between materialism and impressions dimensions, as well as altering the findings of the]. However, the impact of materialistic values on person perception is comparatively minor when contrasted with the effect of the relative wealth cues given in the vignettes. The paom of impressions remains virtually unaltered even when materialistic values are taken into account (see adjusted means in Figure 2) [This finding is further corroborated by the non-significant findings of a MANOVA which included high vs. low materialism (based on a median split) as a fifth between subject factor.]. The way in which materialistic values inform impressions becomes clearer when the responses of adolescents highest and lowest in materialism are compared:

FIGURE 4

PERCEIVED INTELLIGENCE AND SUCCESS AS A FUNCTION OF WEALTH AND PERCEIVER'S MATERIALISM

It appears, then, that the more materialistic an individual's outlook, the more they will perceive a link between a person's abilities and their relative wealth. The non-materialistic adolescents perceived a much smaller discrepancy in intelligence, success and hard work between affluent and less affluent individuals than the highly materialistic ones.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

The first study illustrated that, in contrast to supposed social identity concerns, both working-class and middle-clan adolescents perceive the personal qualities of affluent and less affluent individuals similarly. Moreover, these socially shared notions can be described as dominant representations because they depict affluent individuals in a more positive light - as more intelligent, assertive and in control - than the less well-off. However, it also emerged that representations about the wealthy contain ambivalent elements: impressions of interpersonal warmth and expressiveness favour less affluent individuals. Yet, given the importance that is accorded to autonomy, control and self-reliance within the Western notion of identity (e.g., Dittmar, 1992; Sampson, 1988), such attributes as 'warm' and 'friendly' may well be seen as pleasant, but somehow less important aspects of identity. Being granted such attributes certainly does not threaten the privileged position and positive identity of the economically advantaged, and may make the unequal distribution of wealth appear less unpalatable.

Notwithstanding the use of vignettes rather than videos, the findings regarding abilities and interpersonal warmth were replicated in the second study, which again demonstrated that both working-class and middle-class adolescents agree in their first impressions. it also demonstrated that working-class adolescents endorsed materialistic values more strongly than their middle-class counterparts (see also Dittmar, 1991a). Yet, despite these class-related differences, impressions were shared, and generally favoured the affluent. Materialistic values do affect person perception in a material context, but only moderately. More specifically, materialism as a value orientation seems to lead individuals to draw more strongly on dominant representations, or relative wealth stereotypes, about the personal qualities of people at different levels of the socio-economic hierarchy. However, the generality of these findings needs to be assessed in Anglo-American cultures beyond Britain.

Furthermore, the approach taken in this paper supports the notion that the psychological and social significance of material goods is an integral, pervasive facet of everyday social life, having implications for soff-definition and other-perception. it thus implicitly challenges the mainstream economic perspective on possessions as utilitarian goods which are purchased according to rational costs-benefits decisions on the one hand, and lends further support to the emerging symbolic consumption perspective in consumer research by emphasising the need for a consideration of material goods beyond purchase and beyond marketing concerns. These are concerns not only for psychologists, but also for sociologists, economists, market researchers and other social scientists. Only a truly interdisciplinary perspective on material goods can hope to move closer to a more comprehensive understanding of the implications the materialistic orientation of Western culture has for everyday social reality.

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Authors

Helga Dittmar, Psychology Division, Social Sciences, University of Sussex
Lucy Pepper, Psychology Division, Social Sciences, University of Sussex



Volume

SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992



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