Materialism As Social Cognition: Some Initial Thoughts and Suggested Directions

ABSTRACT - Although materialism has been studied from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, it has never been proposed explicitly as including an information-processing variable. To establish such a construal would facilitate direct, individual-level analyses of materialistic stimuli and contribute to an understanding of which of a person's possessions are valued and why. Drawing on the work of Kelly (1955), this paper suggests that materialists not only perceive people in terms of possessions, but that they use these criteria as superordinate constructs when framing stimuli for social-cognition purposes. Some corollary evidence corroborates this construal.


James M. Hunt, Jerome B. Kernan, and Deborah J. Mitchell (1992) ,"Materialism As Social Cognition: Some Initial Thoughts and Suggested Directions", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 46-49.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 46-49


James M. Hunt, Department of Marketing, Temple University

Jerome B. Kernan, George Mason University

Deborah J. Mitchell, Temple University

[Preparation of this paper was facilitated by a grant from the Temple University Faculty Senate. For discussion purposes only; please do not quote without written permission from the authors. All correspondence should be addressed to James M. Hunt, School of Business and Management, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122.]


Although materialism has been studied from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, it has never been proposed explicitly as including an information-processing variable. To establish such a construal would facilitate direct, individual-level analyses of materialistic stimuli and contribute to an understanding of which of a person's possessions are valued and why. Drawing on the work of Kelly (1955), this paper suggests that materialists not only perceive people in terms of possessions, but that they use these criteria as superordinate constructs when framing stimuli for social-cognition purposes. Some corollary evidence corroborates this construal.


Some Initial Thoughts and Suggested Directions

The sine qua non of materialism is the use of possessions to signal and ascribe individual essence. Whether to judge others or to project an image of oneself, possessions serve as primary indicators of personal substance for the materialist. To such a person, people am what they have-, in Sartre's (1943) terms, being is defined by having. Although this mentality is not uncommon in affluent societies (Goffman, 1959) and it seems to prevail in a substantial part of the U. S. population (Fournier & Richins, 1991), little attention seems to have been paid to the relationship between materialism and cognition. We attempt to do just that. Specifically, we suggest that materialism might be viewed in terms of George Kelly's (1955) theory of personal constructs. Such a view would assert that a materialist's personal construct system (an organized set of dimensions used in categorization processes), is based largely on people's external appearance and what they "have.' Accordingly, a focal person's inner qualities (e.g., .character") are likely to be trivialized in the process of social cognition.


Materialism can be viewed from a socio-cultural perspective (e.g., Czikszenthmihalyi & Rochberg-Haiton, 1981; McCracken, 1988; Mukerji, 19M) or an individual-level (e.g., Richins & Dawson, 1991). Given our interest in cognition, we adopt the latter; specifically, we rely on the work of Belk (1984; 1985; Belk & Polley, 1985) and Richins (Richins & Dawson, 19W; 1992; Fournier & Richins, 1991).

Belk (1984, p. 291) defines materialism quite broadly:

"Materialism reflects the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. At the highest levels of materialism, possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life."

He relates materialism to three personality traits: possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy. Possessiveness is said to include personal concern about the loss of ownership, a desire to control via ownership, and a propensity to retain possessions. Nongenerosity is defined as an unwillingness to share possessions. Envy is cast in terms of an individual's desire for others' possessions. According to Belk, this trait is closely aligned with the concept of resentment-4.9., envious people resent those who own desired possessions. Several points are worth noting here. First, Belk views materialism as an object-oriented concept. Second, it is possible that material objects serve as vehicles of self-enhancement. Following James (1890), this suggests that possessions can help individuals achieve an identity in the eye of others as well as their own. Finally, the concept embodies individuals' desire to control material objects.

According to Richins and Dawson (1991); 1992), materialism is anchored in the individual=s value system. They define the concept as "an organizing or second-order value that incorporates both the importance placed on certain and states (achievement and enjoyment values) and beliefs that possessions are appropriate means to achieve these states' (1990, p. 171). Three themes are viewed as central to materialism. The first of these is that acquisition is central to the lives of materialists. Not only does it serve as a focal point; it also organizes behavioral patterns. Acquisition serves as a set of plans and goals which directs and guides day-to-day endeavors. Their second theme is that acquisition is a means of achieving "happiness.' To the materialist, both acquisition and possession of goods are essential to satisfaction and a 'feeling of well-being.* (This point is akin to the extreme position hold by Belk-that possessions provide the materialist's greatest sources of satisfaction.) Richins and Dawson's third theme is one that has a great deal of currency in both theoretical circles and society at large (Fournier & Richins, 1992). It is the notion that materialists employ possessions-type and amount- to indicate success. In essence, possessions act as indicators of status. This is not a now proposition; it can be traced to the early patina systems of the 1600s (McCracken, 1988). Nevertheless, it remains prevalent in affluent societies today. in an attempt to unity these three themes, Richins and Dawson (1992, p. 11) produce a definition of materialism that rests on the two processes of acquisition and possession. These processes organize and guide the materialist's plans and behaviors under the assumption that particular end-states will result. In this sense, acquisition and possession can be thought of as the understory of a value structure that is framed in accomplishment and esteem needs.

"Materialism represents a mind-set or constellation of attitudes regarding the relative importance of acquisition and possession of objects in one's 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 of the other objects and activities available to them."

According to Richins and Dawson, materialism is a value. It 'guides people's choices and conduct in a variety of situations, including but not limited to consumption arenas' ( 1992, p. 12). Presumably, it influences the amount of goods purchased as well as the type of goods sought.

Our sense of materialism is closely aligned with that of Richins and Dawson, particularly as regards the means-end role of acquisition and possession. We begin, therefore, with the proposition that ( a primary dimension of) materialism involves the use of commercial goods and services as vehicles for signaling individual accomplishment and status. [Although we choose to limit our focus to its status-signaling manifestation, we acknowledge that materialism is a multidimensional construct which may be driven by concerns other than status. For example, materialism may indicate an underlying need for security rather then status, wherein the accumulation of a great many possessions provides a psychological and material distance from deprivation or poverty. Some individuals who have lived through hard economic times, such as the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930s, exhibit this type of materialism.] In this sense, we think materialism is a value orientation. But we further believe that this orientation manifests itself in the cognitive structure of materialists and therein expresses itself in the impressions they form of themselves and other people. in other words, materialism includes the constructs or frames that people use to interpret the ongoing events in their environment. These frames have been called personal constructs (Kelly, 1955) and we believe them to be relevant to social cognition. Our primary assumption is that highly materialistic people /employ a unique set of constructs to categorize and judge themselves and others. They use constructs that emphasize external appearances; objects--especially commercial ones--are equated with personal substance, and symbols with individual essence. These constructs operate in what has come to be called schema theory (Bartlett, 1932). We believe that people possess well-formed person schemata and that they activate those structures in forming impressions and judgments of others and themselves. In the case of materialists, the relevant schemata are organized around "signaling' traits--e.g., type and number of possessions, style, and status. Thus, we propose that materialism entails an externally-oriented set of personal constructs and that these serve as the core features of person schemata. They are brought to bear on everyday life whenever materialists render judgments of themselves or others.


Impression Formation

it is generally conceded that social information is frequently organized and represented in associative networks (Ostrom, Pryor & Simpson, 1981). A prototypic model of this process would begin with the formation of a person nods (corresponding to the person or persons being observed), in response to the receipt of an item of social information--i.e., features, characteristics, behaviors, etc. As a result, a pathway or link is formed between the person node and a feature node. Presumably, now feature nodes and, thus, associative pathways would be formed as additional information about the person is garnered. The result is a unified representation of the target person, with the person nods as a focal point. The linkages to the feature nodes reflect not only the relationships between person and features, but also the interrelationships among all features. Evidence of this type of representation is fairly common in social psychology, particularly in free-recall studies involving memory about people. Typically, trait-related information is organized into clusters, which exhibit a person-focused organization (see Ostrom et al., 1981). Further, several factors have been determined to enhance the clustering of information about a target person. Familiarity with a person leads to increased clustering; the greater the familiarity, the more likely an observer will cluster person-related information. Experience is a second factor; as repetitions of a set of person-related information increase, clustering offsets also increase. Other factors that might affect clustering are those which promote somewhat different organizational strategies and, thus, attenuate clustering by person. One of these, which has particular relevance to our model, is information salience. As the salience of certain person-related information increases, observers bias their organization toward that salient feature. Thus, for highly materialistic observers, information about a persons's acquisitions and possessions would focus their organization on those aspects of the target person. This, of course, presupposes the existence of a cognitive structure--i.e., of a person-schema.


Schema theory is not now to social cognition. Originally proposed by Bartlett (1932), this perspective generally maintains that memory for complex events is both constructive and reconstructive. The term schema refers to the general knowledge structure a person possesses about a particular domain (Alba & Hasher, 1983). According to this formulation, recall of a complex event may contain little in the way of actual detail. Instead, it frequently produces such things as paraphrases, thematic intrusions, and interpretations that are more in line with the generic schema than the target event. Alba and Hasher (1993, p. 204) give a more thorough account of this perspective in terms of four central encoding processes: selection, abstraction, interpretation, and integration:

"A schema theory which asserts that all four processes occur would state that from any environmental event, only the information that is relevant and important to the currently activated schema will be encoded. Of the information selected, the semantic content of the message will be abstracted and the surface form will be lost. Further, the semantic content will then be interpreted in such a way as to be consistent with the schema. The information that remains will then be integrated with previously acquired, related information that was activated during the current encoding episode. The operation of one or more of these processes is likely to result in a representation that is less than totally accurate."

In short, schemata are cognitive structures that provide meaning to experience. People encountering a stimulus event activate a schema that is relevant to that event. In that the schema is a stored representation of similar events from the past, it guides the encoding, representation, and evaluation of the event at hand (Taylor & Crocker, 1981). Thus, schemata can be construed as economizing devices, directing attention to only certain (relevant) details of a stimulus and often "writing over' others, filling in missing data where necessary and precluding inferences about irrelevant material. They also can be construed as hubs around which stimulus information is organized and thereby represented in memory. Last, they can be viewed as maps for the retrieval of social information as well as structures that enable subsequent evaluations and problem-solving activity. Schemata, therefore, function as frames from which experience is viewed. That people schematically organize and encode social information about others is a proposition that has gained increasing support (Hastie, 1981; Nakamura, Graesser, & Zimmerman, 1985; Teaser, 1978). In a typical experiment (see Hestia, 1981), subjects are given a set of trait-related information about a target person and asked to form an impression of that person. This task is followed by exposing subjects to additional information about the person. Subjects are then asked to recall as much of the subsequent person-information as possible. Results typically demonstrate that subjects are better able to recall information that is consistent with the original trait-ensemble information than information that is irrelevant. Further, the schema-relevant information is frequently clustered. Both Nakamura et al. and Hastie interpret these findings as evidence of schematic operations. Apparently, subjects form a person impression schema from the initial data. This schema is used later to encode, organize, and retrieve the second set of information. Such conclusions are consistent with the notion that the domain of schema theory extends to trait-based person impressions.


Given that people employ trait-based person schemata to assimilate information about others, the question arises as to whether they develop and use more general structures-4.e., ones that are relevant to a broad spectrum of persons, ranging from themselves to unknown persons. We would like to suggest that they do, and in a manner approximated by Kelly's (1955) theory of personal constructs. Further, we suggest that materialism is a case in point of such trait-based person schemata.

As noted above, materialism is a value orientation that results in judgments based on external appearances. The manner in which such judgments are made is anchored in certain trait-ensembles- specifically, those having to do with acquisition and possession. These trait-ensembles originate in materialists' set of personal constructs and they form the core of their person schemata. According to Kelly, a personal construct is a framing dimension used by an individual to make sense of events and people in the environment. A personal construct is "a way in which at least two things are alike and at the same time different from at least one other thing* (1955, p. 86). This definition closely resembles what others have called 'concepts" and it approximates Bruner's (1957) conceptualization of "criterial attributes." For Kelly, however, the distinguishing characteristic of personal constructs is their level of generality. Fie argues that people apply them in almost constant fashion over a broad range of perceptual situations. Accordingly, the number of constructs people use is quite small. Kelly's ideas have strong ties to both Gestalt psychology and cognitive consistency. Fie assumes that people are motivated to understand and order their world and, as a consequence, they develop a system of personal constructs through experience. The system is hierarchical and it serves as a set of interpretive frames or templates. It generates expectancies for anticipated events and these guide the comprehension of those events when they occur. The system "explains" events according to their consistency with the prevailing constructs. All this functions much like schemata, but personal constructs are broader in scope. As people go through life, they search for and develop comprehensive sets of constructs that enable them to explain, anticipate, and control events that make up their experience. Underpinning these constructs is a system of values. For materialists, achievement, accomplishment, success, and status are paramount values, As a consequence, their information-processing constructs reflect those values. (Merely maintaining such values does not define one as a materialist; operationalizing them in terms of a possession-related system of constructs does.) The materialist's constructs emphasize the physically-observable correlates of success, rather than any internal qualities that might reflect that value-state.

Thus, in a reversal of causal reasoning, ownership of commercial objects is accepted as the means by which success and status can be achieved. The properties or traits of the" objects become the core of the materialist's personal construct system; they drive classification of people and actions into categories-successful vs. unsuccessful, important vs. unimportant, admired vs. disdained. This categorization operates through the materialist's person schemata, which are organized around commercial goods. In assimilating information about people, the materialist focuses on what they own; impressions are formed and judgments are made on the basis of those possessions. The impressions consist of a representational array of linkages between people-nodes and trait-nodes which reflect the various aspects of possessions. With such representations, the materialist is able to judge people- whether they are successful, important, admirable, and so on. Thus, the woman spied wearing a Rolex watch and an Hermes scarf at the gardening center may be judged by the materialist to be an aesthete who is perhaps aloof and shallow, but nonetheless to be greatly admired. The data underlying this judgment derives not from personal interaction, but rather observation of the Rolex and the Hermes. In sum, we propose that materialists form impressions of people by deploying person schemata that have at their core a particular trait-ensemble. This assemblage is anchored in a materialistic system of personal constructs related to acquisition and consumption. When activated, these schemata lead to distinctly 'materialistic' value judgments about people.

Based on the foregoing, materialism comprises not only a value orientation, but also a system of personal constructs that reflects those values. Materialism is a value orientation that stresses the importance of personal success and stature and an attendant system of personal constructs organized around the palpable properties of possessions. This definition closely follows Richins and Dawson (1992), yet it extends their conceptualization to personal judgment and cognition. This extension seems necessary since many people profess values such as success, accomplishment and stature, yet they are not .materialistic." What distinguishes materialists is their cognitive constructs-the templates they use to adduce those values. "Materialistic' means an information-processing proclivity to judge people's value (e.g., success) on the basis of their material possessions and to the exclusion of their non-material attributes.

Our thoughts are merely initial ones, to be sure. Nevertheless, adding an information-processing dimension to the conceptualization of materialism seems to be not only empirically judicious but also intuitively plausible.


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James M. Hunt, Department of Marketing, Temple University
Jerome B. Kernan, George Mason University
Deborah J. Mitchell, Temple University


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

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