Worldly Possessions: Issues and Criticisms

ABSTRACT - The tendencies to acquire and possess worldly goods have been subject to widespread criticism throughout history. The present discussion attempts to distill the key behavioral assumptions and issues raised by these criticisms. Differing assumptions and issues are shown to lead to different logical stances toward acquisitive and possessive tendencies in society. The most fundamental behavioral research questions bearing on these issues are posed as a critical research agenda.


Russell W. Belk (1983) ,"Worldly Possessions: Issues and Criticisms", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 514-519.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 514-519


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

[Write the author for references and a more complete version or this paper.]


The tendencies to acquire and possess worldly goods have been subject to widespread criticism throughout history. The present discussion attempts to distill the key behavioral assumptions and issues raised by these criticisms. Differing assumptions and issues are shown to lead to different logical stances toward acquisitive and possessive tendencies in society. The most fundamental behavioral research questions bearing on these issues are posed as a critical research agenda.


Criticisms of consumer interactions with possessions are directed at consumer traits such as waste and overindulgence, at presumed motivational mechanisms such as greed and envy, and at the more general belief that material gratifications are a viable means to happiness and satisfaction in life. The present paper intends to examine the behavioral assumptions and issues raised by such criticisms and to outline a research agenda that is more attuned to the basic human issues involving the acquisition and use of consumer goods.


Acquisitiveness or possessiveness are characteristics that are usuaLly applied to tangible material goods, but may be more liberally construed to apply to certain intangible experiences, rights, and accomplishments such as travel experiences (MacCannell 1976). In this light acquisitiveness may be defined as the inclination and tendency to establish a proprietary relationship with tangible or intangible things. It is the desire to apply the personal pronoun "mine" or "ours" to valued objects. Once established this relationship of possession implies mastery or control over an object as well as personal identification with the item as an extension or self (Belk 1982). Possessiveness is the inclination and tendency to retain control or ownership or one's possessions, whether confined to individual objects or generalized to all of one's possessions. The objects of possessiveness need not be owned in a legal sense, as long as there is an inclination to prevent others from gaining control of the objects. Since it is generally thought to be only rational to acquire valued objects and to protect one's possessions, there is no necessarily pejorative cone to these definitions of acquisitiveness and possessiveness. However, various aspects or these traits and their presumed motivations have been heavily criticized.


Religious Criticisms

The broadest and most sustained criticisms have arisen in religious philosophy. The more general of these criticisms nave been aimed at the singular or excessive pursuit or material goods at the expense of "higher" pursuits. In organized religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all condemn concentrating on building excessive material wealth. For instance, the key to salvation in Buddhism lies in rejecting the material world and turning to an inward contemplative focus (Bellah 1965; Weber 1958b; Gaer 1963; Myrdal 1968). But perhaps the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita advocates rejecting worldly goods the most poetically:

Pondering on objects of the senses gives rise to attraction; from attraction grows desire, desire flames to passion, passion breeds recklessness; and then betrayed memory lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind, till purpose, mind and man are all undone (from the Mahabharata) .

While such religious teachings have been criticized for making a virtue of poverty (e.g. Simmel 1900/1978) and for placating human striving by acting as an "opium or the people" (Marx 1844/1975), their universality suggests that humans 41 a powerful attraction to acquisitiveness but a profound disenchantment with its results.

It is revealing to examine the more detailed behavioral and motivational criticisms implied in these blanket indictments of materialism through conceptualizations of sins C the moral mechanisms transforming religious criticisms into matters or conscience. Such underlying criticisms are also common across major religious faiths, and are seen most clearly in the Judeo-Christian "seven deadly sins". This list or vices stemming from the early second century B.C. was popularized in the middle ages when Catholic confessors needed a convenient list of damning sins for their work (Bloomfield 1952). Since that time-the precise seven sins and the ordering or their severity has evolved around a central core or sins, reflecting the problems or the time (Lyman 1978; Flemming 1962; Menninger 1973). Nevertheless, the most accepted list since its inception is the set or sins offered by Gregory the Great in the sixth century A.D.: pride, anger, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, and lust. Of these, greed, pride, gluttony, and envy involve the most direct criticisms or consumer behaviors.

Greed or avarice is defined as "excessive appetite for wealth" (Meagher 1967a), "an inordinate desire, an insatiable longing for the possession or something" (Lyman 1978), and "an absorbing passion for earthly possessions and a selfish gratification in their retention" (Tod 1926a). In these definitions greed is characterized as involving a socially unacceptable degree of concentration on acquiring and possessing things and as being selfishly individualistic. As the authors or each or the three definitions point out, a further reason for religion's opposition to greed is the rear that money or possessions will replace Cod as a focus or worship. This rear is illustrated in biblical references such as "for you cannot serve God and Mammon [wealth]" (Luke 16:13), as well as in contemporarY references to "the almighty dollar" and "blessed possessions". However, greed also seems to be opposed in religious writings because it is thought to lead to other vices such as fraud, deceit, and theft (Lyman 1978), and seems to preclude the practice or social virtues such as charity justice, and compassion (Meagher 1967a; Coblentz 1965).

While the estimate that 90 percent or all crimes are committed for money (Goldberg and Lewis 1978) may be high, excessive greed may result in overlooking normal social conventions and laws. As Tawney (1926) documents, religious authorities long thought usary to be such an immoral practice springing from greed. To this day there are legal prohibitions or limitations placed on interest rates in many areas, presumably as a curb on the "unjust" rates that would otherwise be charged. The religious view that greed is in opposition to charity and related virtues entails a number of implicit criticisms of greed in prescriptions advocating selfless charity to others. The basis offered for these religious urgings is the view that since God created the earth and its resources, all things belong to God and man is merely a custodian or steward rather than an owner of "possessions" (Bartlett 1913; Wood 1913; Harper 1974; Henry 1974). More broadly, however, advocating charity recognizes the inherent conflict between individual and social interests (Carlyle 1913; McDonald 1939; Grace 1953; Becker 1975).

However, religious attitudes toward various aspects of avarice have not been constant throughout history. During the medieval period in Europe the Catholic Church acquired almost half of all English lands and over half of all Spanish property by invoking prescriptions for selfless giving and, where necessary, by withholding confession and absolution until property was willed to the church (Lafargue 1894; Letourneau 1896; Simmel 1900/1978; Baldwin 1937). The resulting wealth of the Church was a major part of the argument by which reformers such as Luther and Calvin were able to establish and attract followers to their protestant churches (Dietze 1963; Linden 1979).

With the protestant reformation, religious attitudes toward various aspects of avarice began to change. According to the well-known work of Weber (1958a), these reformers aided the industrial revolution by replacing the church's paradoxical vilification of avarice with a sanctification of industriousness, work as a calling, and profit. Whether such changes were the cause or the effect of capitalism (see Grace 1953 and Green 1973), religious teachings began to be interpreted to suggest that active pursuit of wealth is a manifestation of God's will (Tawney 1926) and that accumulated wealth is a sign of God's blessing (Weber 1958a).

However, while reinterpretations of religious teachings did much to free acquisitiveness from the sin of avarice, possessiveness was not vindicated until production caught up with demand and frugality began to decline in the face of encouragement to borrow and buy (Bell 1976; Albee 1977, 1978; Linden 1979).

The second deadly sin of pride or vanity is defined as "the inordinate desire to excel" (Bolle 1967) or "an unwarranted feeling of self-sufficiency, usually manifested by an arrogant bearing and a disregard of the worth o. others" (Lemme 1964). Sometimes pride and vanity are regarded as distinct, in which case pride is defined as "a self-regarding passion or sentiment of self love. . . associated. . . with. . . arrogance, conceit, vanity, and egotism" (Pope 1995), while vanity or vainglory is defined as "the sin or vice of one who immoderately desires renown, prestige, or the praise and respect of others" (Hennessey 1967). In vanity, self is held to replace God (hubris) or other people as a focus of concern. Pride and vanity are further seen to be associated with other sins and vices such as showing off, boasting, and excessive love of novelty (Lyman 1978; Hennessey 1967). Religious opposition to pride or vanity is also a means of reducing the potential envy of others through encouraging the virtues or modesty and humility.

The most prominent manifestation of pride or vanity in consumer behavior is in conspicuous consumption (Veblen 1899; 1910). As originally envisioned, conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption were two ways to enhance status and prestige by showing, respectively, that one had time and money to waste. Brooks (1979) proposed that America has shifted since Veblen's time from seeking status through conspicuous consumption to seeking status by mocking conspicuous consumption through "parody displays" such as ownership of Pop Art pieces that show off with satiric wit rather than pretentious seriousness. Mason (1981) proposes that since Veblen's time conspicuous consumption has become much more of a middle class phenomenon in North America and Western Europe. Both contentions are consistent with others' observations that conspicuous consumption is now antithetical to upper social class values since it has become feasible for other classes as well (Leibenstein 1950; Steiner and Weiss 1951; Snyder and Fromkin 1980).

Perhaps the most prevalent consumption item thought to be subject to vanity and conspicuous consumption is clothing. Veblen (1894/1934) suggested that only those fashion items such as high heels that announce that the person so-dressed could not perform manual labor, are instrumental in attempts to gain prestige. Partly to avoid wasteful clothing expenditures and partly to ensure the clothing uniqueness of a few, legal restrictions were placed on clothing fashions through the sumptuary laws of ancient Greece and Rome and Medieval Europe (Baldwin 1926; Miller 1928; Hurlock 1999). For example, in France under Charles IX, only princesses and duchesses were allowed to wear silk.

Generally lists of the seven deadly sins have placed pride as the first and most basic of sins, potentially leading to all others (Lemme 1964). For Freud (1914/ 1959), pride and self-interest exist as primary narcissism which is natural and begins with the infant's inability to distinguish self from environment. If, however, the child does not outgrow the dominant love of self, pathological narcissism may result (Masterson 1981). Lasch (1979) and Wolfe (1976) are among those who suggest that this pathology or sin is becoming the dominant motif in American culture. These recent criticisms echo the religious charge that pride is the most basic sin.

Gluttony is defined as "the sin and vice opposed by way of excess to the virtue of abstinence, whose function is to control the desire and use of food and nonintoxicating drink" (Meagher 1967b), and a glutton is described as "one who exhibits almost insatiable desire and enormous capacity for engorgement" (Lyman 1978). Gluttony may be more tolerated than other sins because it involves an excess of things (food, drink) otherwise regarded as good (Meagher 1967b), and because it is a "victimless crime" (Lyman 1978). The reasons that gluttony is still considered a sin appear to be that it reflects a self-involvement that diverts attention from other persons and God (Menninger 1973). Like conspicuous consumption it also highlights economic disparities where only the wealthy can afford such levels of consumption. Gluttony further contradicts the supposed virtues of occasional asceticism (Hall 1926) and self-denial (Mulhern 1967); it violates the ancient Greek and subsequent Christian principle of moderation over excess (Menninger 1973). As Lyman (1978) points out, even though gluttony is not particularly harmful socially, society provides its own sanctions against those presumed by obese appearance to be gluttons.

In part, greed, pride, and gluttony are all condemned by religions in order to discourage provoking envy. The deadly sin of envy is defined as "the eager desire to gain some possession on which the heart is set" (Tod 1926b), "the desire to have that which belongs to someone else" (Bakker and Bakker - Rabdau, 1973, p. 155), or "displeasure and ill-will at the superiority of [another person] in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable" (Schoeck 1966). These three definitions define envy in progressively more harmful variations. To have an eager desire for a possession need not be sinful and may merely be a motivation to work hard in order to acquIre such an object (Lyman 1978; Sabini and Silver 1982). The second definition has greater potential for harm if the desire for another's possessions includes illegitimately acquiring them (Tod 1926b). The third definition, involving what has been called "destructive envy" (Bakker and Bakker Rabdau 1973), is the strongest form of envy. It is aimed not at possession of another's belongings but at wishing the other person to be deprived or these possessions (Schoeck 1966).

Whereas envy is the desire for something that belongs to someone else, the related sin or jealousy is "the passionate endeavor to keep something that is ones own by right" (Schoeck 1966, p. 13). Davis (1949) points out that sexual jealousy is a particularly strong form of this vice in which a mate is regarded as sexual property. Evidence suggests that this attitude, is present even in polygamous societies and societies in which one may be expected to share their mate with a guest (Davis 1949; Schoeck 1966; Bakker and Bakker-Rabdau 1973; Lyman 1978).

It should be noted that despite their various injunctions against materialism, religions have been strong supporters or the concept of private property. Although there are some New Testament experiments in communal property, and some sects around the millennium that cried to do away with private property (Cohn 1970), there is a general religious condemnation of theft and trespass. Extravagance and prodigality are also condemned as rot showing proper regard for property and wealth. Such defenses of the importance of property do not so much glorify possession as recognize it as a necessary condition for social order (Tawney 1926, p. 32; Grace 1953). This view was summarized by Clement of Alexandria in the third century A.D.: "So let no one do away with possessions, but rather the passions of the soul such as do not permit the better use of property" (Bartlet 1513, p. 101).

Marxist Criticisms

Aside from earlier utopian attempts at abolishing private property (e.g. those of the millenarian anarchists), perhaps the closest forerunner of Marx's views on private property was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1841/1975). Proudhon argued that because land was not created by human labor it ought to be common property; whereas profit, which is created by labor, ought to be the property of the laborer. Any attempt to claim land or others' labor profit was branded theft. Marx similarly felt that the capitalist who earned money through accumulated capital rather than labor was receiving unjust income that exploited others' labor. While Marx held in his early writings that all private property should be abolished, he maintained that in a necessary first stage of "crude communism" only land and other resources would be removed from private ownership and replaced by societal or communal ownership. In latter stages the basic concept or private property would be abolished as well (Marx 1844, 1975). However, in later writings (1867/1978) Marx advocated eliminating only the first stage factors or production or "bourgeois property", and this is the predominant surviving Marxist property view (e.g., Engels 187 /1976; Fromm 1961; Hunt 1981; Soper 1981).

Marx believed that greed or egoism was innate to a certain degree but was greatly exacerbated by exchange and the division of labor in capitalist economies (Tod 1996a; Meszaros 1970). at the same time he recognized that crude communism was a necessary intermediate stage to complete communism because man is also envious, a motivation that Marx saw as arising out or greed: "Universal envy constituting itself as power is the hidden form in which greed reasserts itself and satisfies itself, but in another way . . . the desire to level everything down" (Marx 1844/1975, p. 546). Marx accepted such a leveling down as an ultimate state only to the extent that it would be brought about by removing private ownership of the factors of production that he saw as illegitimate sources of income. Thus Marx envisioned a society in which some income inequalities existed, but the extremes of both capitalist wealth and poverty were eliminated (Gorin 1980).

Marx also attacked "commodity fetishism" on the part of the consumer (Marx 1867/1978). Man was said to make a fetish or commodities when he anthropomorphized them as having magical powers capable of bringing happiness. "The fantasy of the appetites deceives the fetish worshipper into believing that a 'lifeless object' will give up its natural character to gratify his desires" (Marx 1842/1967, p. 115). This problem is held by socialists to be worsened by the tendency of capitalism to stimulate "artificial desires" in order to sell the products it produces (Meszaros 1970, p. 54). It is recommended instead that respect and gratifications be achieved through work (Dyke 1981): man should eat in order to work rather than work in order to eat. That is, real gratification is held by Marxists to arise from how one contributes rather than how one gains materially. As summarized by Fromm (1961, p. 14), "Marx's whole criticism of capitalism is exactly that it has made interest in money and material gain the main motive in man and his concept's socialism is precisely that or a society in which this material interest would cease to be the dominant one "

Other Criticisms

Whereas Mars saw certain motivations for and sources of wealth as non-legitimate, a number of other critics have seen certain uses of wealth as non-legitimate. Sombart (1913/1967) for instance documented the extravagant expenditures of grand European courts and argued along with Hazlitt (1818/1933) and Tawney (1920) for more socially beneficial expenditures or wealth. Veblen (1899) was only one of many who have criticized the waste inherent in luxury expenditures aimed solely at satisfying-the needs for power and prestige (Dellinger 1977; Donleavy 1975; Fuller and Rice 1966; Hayakawa 1953; Packard 1959; Rae 1834/1905; Sekova 1977; Slater 1977, Urwick 1908).

A variation or these arguments is that if contemporary consumption continues at its present level we will soon exhaust available resources and poison our physical environment. This is not really a new criticism, having been formulated by Malthus (1836) and touched upon by a number of others since (e.g., Galbraith 1958; Katona 1964; Chamberlain 1970), but it has received renewed attention since the 1972 Club or Rome report forecasting a resource-inspired catastrophe in only a few decades (Meadows et al. 1972), and the 1973-1974 OPEC oil embargo on North America. The general solution or accommodation proposed is to learn to possess fewer goods and use fewer services. Although certain governmental changes have been proposed to facilitate such a change (e.g. Daly 1977; Illich 1977), the ultimate response called for is a change in human values toward lesser acquisitiveness (e.g. Shumacher 1973; Leiss 1976; Inglehart 1977; Phillips 1974; Valaskakis et al. 1979). Some (e.g. Linden 1979) contend that such reductions in acquisitiveness are already taking place. In addition to the general reduction in the industrialized world's energy consumption during the past decade, limited adoption or a "voluntary simplicity" lifestyle may portend a future or at least less blatant acquisitiveness (e.g. Elgin and Mitchell 1977; Elgin 1981; Leonard-Barton 1981; Leonard-Barton and Rogers 1981; Sharma 1981: Gronhaug and Ogaard 1982). However, such adoption is still quite limited (Yankelovich 1981, pp. 175-176).

A more basic criticism suggests that acquisitiveness and possessiveness are personally unfulfilling or at least are less so than is hoped by acquisitive and possessive persons. In various forms, this argument has been heard throughout recorded history. Two schools of Greek philosophy argued against such materialistic practices: Stoicism and Epicureanism (Hobhouse 1913; Tarn 1959). The Stoic believed that the key to happiness was to be satisfied with what one hat. Epicurus taught that in order to achieve happiness one must be free from passions, desires, and pains. Asceticism was not regarded as an essential virtue as the Stoics maintained, but was regarded as necessary after basic needs are met in order to find true pleasure. Aristotle offered a somewhat similar view in arguing that temperance is the chief moral virtue. This so-called "golden mean" of "nothing to excess" summarized a popular ideal in Greek PhilosoPhy (Van Hook 1923).

Thomas Aquinas, whom many think spoke best for the beliefs of medieval Europe, also criticized acquisitiveness and possessiveness (Pegis 1945, p. 55; McDonald 1939). But while he saw the acquisition of wealth as a shallow goal in life, he also maintained that the use of wealth to bring happiness to self and others was virtuous. However, as others have pointed out, during the middle ages there was so little wealth outside of the clergy and nobility that such argument was a moot point ( 1937).

By the sixteenth century Machiavelli had begun to further whittle away the explanation that goods could not bring happiness by attaching criticism only to present goods: ". . . human desires are insatiable . . . this gives rise to constant discontent in the human mind and a weariness of the things they possess; and it is this which makes them decry the present, praise the past, and desire the future" (as quoted in Burnham 1968). Weakening criticisms of self-interest, acquisitiveness, and possessiveness are seen also in the subsequent writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Hume, Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill, and others. As Mandeville (1714/1970, p. 969) maintained in his popular Fable of the Bees, "Pride and Vanity have built more hospitals than all the Virtues put together".

But while philosophic criticism of consumption as a means to happiness have been blunted, psychoanalytic criticisms have arisen to challenge this position. At least in their stronger and more compulsive forms, acquisitiveness and possessiveness are held by such analysts to be psychologically unhealthy. These views are found in the writings of Freud and neo-Freudians such as Horney, Adler, Klein, Fenichell, Abraham, and Fromm. According to Freud (1908; 1914) the inclinations toward acquisitiveness and possessiveness come from fixations at or regressions to two different stages of psychological development. The acquisitive person is seen to be seeking oral gratification, security, and affection in an excessive longing to acquire objects that substitute for mother's milk withheld in infancy. Such a person is also seen to be interested in acquiring bargains that represent a victory aver salespersons and other shoppers in order to restore feelings of lost self respect (Bergler 1947). Horney (1937) sees a similar struggle for self respect in acquisitiveness but attributes this to an excessive desire for prestige in order to ward off anxiety rather than an attempt to "get even" for oral deprivation in infancy.

Possessiveness was seen by Freud (1908/1959) to result from an anal fixation. By being prematurely forced to retain bowel movements until appropriate times and places, the child learns to be obstinate, stingy, and retentive in later life. Borneman (1973/1976) cites Fromm's work in German tracing an acceleration in the tendency to toilet train children at a younger age after the breakdown of the feudal system in Europe. This Fromm interpreted to be a primary factor in creating personalities for modern capitalist systems emphasizing accumulation of wealth. Freud's equation that money symbolizes feces is offered in further explanation of the behavior of the fanatic collector or miser Horney (1937), on the other hand, sees possessiveness as resulting from an excessive fear of impoverishment. She also stresses that this tendency leads to a neurotic competitiveness in which the desire is not just to make oneself secure and free from anxiety, but also to deprive others so that one is well off in a relative sense as well. While still stressing an anal interpretation, Fenichell (1938/1954) also emphasizes that much possessiveness may arise from an irrational extension of the desire to seek financial, material, and social security.

These are surely not the only criticisms of acquisitiveness and possessiveness from the perspective of the individual. The historian Toynbee concludes that "the true end of Man is not to possess the maximum amount of consumer goods"-Toynbee 1962, p. 144) . Fromm (1976) worries that we confuse what we have with what we are, and Mumford (1955) fears that wants that cannot be satisfied in the marketplace are regarded as unfulfillable. . of t (1971) observes that the tendency to measure happiness quantitatively in terms of number of things owned begins in early childhood. Orlick (1978) suggests that the individual possession of things has resulted in an alienation from other people for whom these goods substitute. And Yankelovich (1981) concludes that the search for identity through consumption turns us away from others through whom we may find a more real and meaningful identity.

While this summary of criticisms of possessiveness and acquisitiveness is not exhaustive, it is sufficient to illustrate the pervasiveness and nature of such concerns. In order to more objectively examine the merit of these criticisms we must distill their common themes and derive the behavioral issues on which their_arguments hinge. These issues should then pose a research agenda for a more enlightened consideration of the nature and effects of consumer motivations.


Figure 1 offers a condensed view of the assumptions, value judgments, and solutions proposed in the foregoing criticisms of acquisitiveness and possessiveness. The top two cells really imply no criticisms. In instances in which acquisitive and possessive motivations are assumed to be innate and judged to be good motives, the self-interested or hedonistic pursuit of these traits is encouraged. This is the dominant view held, at least implicitly, in contemporary capitalistic cultures. For instance, it is suggested that these traits encourage competition and striving, and that such derivative traits benefit the individual and society (e.g. Lauterback 1954; Dietze 1963; Lyman 1978; Sabini and Silver 1982). However, as Lauterback (1954) notes, such extreme individualism may deter cooperation between individuals. Another problem pointed out by Brickman and Campbell (1971) is that if hedonism is the best response to acquisitiveness and possessiveness and if we practice it well, there is an ever expanding need for bigger and better pleasures as we become adapted to and jaded with old pleasures. Some (e.g. Linden 1979) have even linked such a hedonistic trap to the fall of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the view that there is merit in self-interested consumption activities has gradually eroded the puritan ethic and, like the acceptance of formerly "evil" sports (Hogan 1967). has won central acceptance by Western religions.



The assumption that acquisitiveness and possessiveness are innate has received increasing support from the arguments t:hat selfishness is part of our genetic heritage (Wilson 1975; Campbell 1978) and that territoriality is a natural tendency in man and animals (Newman 1972; Bakker and Bakker-Rabdau 1973; Edney 1972; 1976). While there have been challenges to these views (see Belk 1982), such contentions join the lessening religious criticism of acquisitiveness and possessiveness in supporting the self-interested views that seem to be increasingly popular in the United States (Yankelovich 1981).

In the second view, in which acquisitiveness and possessiveness are judged to be good acquired traits, the recommended action is to acquire these traits and by so doing realize a greater portion of the human potential. An example of this position would be the view that basic self-interest must be stimulated in order to foster achievement motivation and progress (McClelland 1961). No criticism of consumption attitudes is made in this view either.

The third view that acquisitive and possessive traits are innate but bad, leads to advocating that we learn to curb our natural impulses and in so-doing "renounce our wicked ways". This has been the traditional position of most organized religions. Despite decreased religious criticism, three lines of evidence suggest that consumers may still be socialized to resist undesirable materialistic impulses. One finds that children show an increasing ability to delay gratifications over immediate consumption as they get older (Mischel 1474). Second, sharing of material goods increases with the children' ages (Lowenthal 1976; Rheingold and Hay 1978). And third, open-ended wishes elicited from children shift from material goods to more abstract relationships and achievements as the child gets older (Washburne 1932; Boynton 1936; Zeligs 1942; Cobb 1954; Wheeler 1963; Ables 1979; Horrocks and Mussman 1973).

The final view that acquisitiveness and possessiveness are acquired and bad suggests that rather than trying to curb these impulses once acquired, they should be precluded from forming by altering their causes. For Marxists, who adopt this view, the primary cause of these motivations is the capitalist system thought to help foster greed. From this perspective, the solutions are to replace most private ownership of capital by public ownership, and to replace market-dominated valuation or resources by valuations planned according to public rather than individual assessments or needs (Fromm 1961).

From the perspective of psychoanalysts who also hold the view that extreme acquisitiveness and possessiveness are acquired and bad, the solution lies in reforming the individual rather than in reforming the political-economic system. For instance, there is a type of person who will spend money on tangible possessions but cannot bear to spend money on intangibles which do not remain in the physical possession of the buyer (Borneman 1973/1975). Such a person might, despite being wealthy. be willing to buy recordings of opera performances but be unwilling to attend a live performance of the same opera.

In pursuing the research questions that will help to locate the most appropriate assumptions and judgments in Figure 1, a variety of research approaches seem promising. Comparisons of socialist and capitalist societies, poor and wealthy consumers and nations, communal and individualistic groups, and those with varying numbers and types of possessions may all help to answer key questions. Developmental studies with children and adults, comparative studies measuring acquisitiveness, possessiveness, envy, competitiveness, and happiness, experimental studies of sharing and distribution of possessions, and even archaeological studies of the property and institutions of prehistoric peoples may also prove useful.

The most prominent descriptive research issues are these:

1. Is acquisitiveness unavoidable?

2. Is possessiveness unavoidable?

3 Does altruism exist?

The first two questions involve the issue of whether the consumer tendencies in question are innate (or inevitable) or are acquired. Comparative studies must seek to find strong differences in such tendencies and, if found, to understand their causes. Furby (1978b) provides a review or some Of the anthropological studies bearing on this question. Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsburg (1915) provide another useful compilation of relevant anthropological studies. Beaglehole (1932) reviews and Log evidence from animal studies. And Schlatter (1951) provides a historical review of property ideas and related concepts.

The third question involving the existence of the non-egoistic trait of altruism may seem readily answerable. But while "altruistic acts" are easily documented, the issue of whether altruism exists as a motive for such actions is more equivocal (Berkowitz 1970; Bryan 1979; Dreman and Greenbaum 1973; Weiss et al., 1973; Phelps 1975; Rescher 1975; Schwartz 1977; Collard 1978; Gergen, Greenberg and Wills 1981). Sociobiological arguments, for instance, maintain that all apparent acts or altruism are really motivated by self interest based on "reciprocal altruism" whereby the helper expects to have the favor returned should the need arise (Trivers 1977; Ruse 1979; Simon and Zegura 1979). This issue is directly involved with the first two questions since acquisitiveness and possessiveness are generally regarded as egoistic or selfish traits opposed to altruism.

In addition to basic descriptive research issues, there are several basic explanatory research issues that need to be addressed in seeking a more enlightened understanding or the alternatives in Figure 1:

1. What factors influence acquisitiveness and possessiveness?

2. What are the consequences of acquisitiveness and possessiveness?

3. What role does consumer satisfaction play in lite satisfaction?

The first question might be answered by considering such potential causes as relative income deprivation, hope or improving social status, and perceptions of distributive justice. Several relevant studies compare the acquisitive and possessive behaviors of different types of Israeli kibbutz children (Talmon and Stup 1960/1979) and of kibbutz children, Israeli city children, and American city children (Furby 1979; 1980a).

The second question involving the consequences of acquisitive and Possessive behaviors concerns potential effects on envy and anti-social behaviors as well as potential effects on achievement motivation and pro-social behaviors. Evidence suggests that envy is provoked only by the consumption behaviors of those perceived to be of nearly equal status (Runciman 1966; Crosby 1976). Some evidence suggests that under certain conditions of perceived privilege and justification,disadvantageous inequity leads to cheating (Stephenson and White 1968, 1970), but other studies suggest that similar conditions may lead to self-denial by those in inequitable disadvantaged positions (Leventhal and Bergman 1969). Competitiveness and achievement motivation are found to a greater degree in societies such as the United States and Germany with strong income disparities and individualistic religions (Munroe and Munroe 1977). However, these same societies are found to place greater emphasis on empathy with others and strong emotional bases for interpersonal relationships (Munroe and Munroe 1977; Gergen, Morse and Gergen 1980).

The final major causal question involves the role of consumption in providing happiness in life. Several studies sought to relate survey measures of material well-being to feelings of happiness (Berreman and Zaretsky 1981; Bradburn and Caplovitz 1965; Cantril 1965; Easterlin 1974; Campbell, Converse and Rogers 1976; Furby 1981). Wernimont and Fitzpatrick (1972) found that the perceived relationship between wealth and happiness is strongest among supervisors and salespersons and weakest among college students and nuns. Studies among mental patients (Morgan and Cushing 1966) and an elderly population (Sherman and Newman 1977/1978) found that personal possessions are positively related to feelings of well-being and satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1978; 1981) found that in happy homes cherished possessions are more likely to be those symbolizing relationships between family members than those more symbolic of self. Furby (1978a; 1980b) presents evidence that possessions may produce satisfaction through a sense of competence in interacting with the environment.


While some work has been done addressing the key issues posed by criticisms of consumer acquisitiveness and possessiveness, clearly much more remains to be done. The facts that the themes addressed in these criticisms have been repeated over millennia, have helped to stimulate political revolutions, and concern the basic well-being of mankind, all indicate that these issues are of substantially more than mild or passing interest.



Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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Wu Gong, Shenzhen University

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Evan Weingarten, University of California San Diego, USA
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