Society and the Market, Meaning and Obsessive Consumption

Citizens or Consumers?

How Psychology, technology and the Free Market came together to create the breakdown of civil society

Let us start with the impact of Psychology in turning citizens into consumers.

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, was among the first to understand that one of the implications of the subconscious mind was that it could be appealed to in order to sell products and ideas. You no longer had to offer people what they needed; by linking your brand with their deeper hopes and fears, you could persuade them to buy what they dreamt of. Equipped with our subconscious wish-lists, we could go shopping for the life we had seen portrayed in the adverts. The Freud dynasty is at the heart of this compelling social history. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis; Edward Bernays, who invented public relations; Anna Freud, Sigmund's devoted daughter; and present-day PR guru and Sigmund's great grandson, Matthew Freud.

Sigmund Freud's work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society's belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man's ultimate goal.

Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn't need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

He was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticizing the motorcar. His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world.

The following article by Ameiti Etzione gives a clue to the underlying dynamics of “Consumer” societies:

“What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs — safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education — it is not consumerism. But when, on attempts to satisfy these higher needs through the simple acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism — and consumerism becomes a social disease.

The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume — working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess.

But consumerism will not just magically disappear from its central place in our culture. It needs to be supplanted by something.

A shift away from consumerism, and toward this something else, would obviously be a dramatic change for American society. But such grand cultural changes are far from unprecedented. Profound transformations in the definition of “the good life” have occurred throughout human history. Before the spirit of capitalism swept across much of the world, neither work nor commerce were highly valued pursuits — indeed, they were often delegated to scorned minorities such as Jews. For centuries in aristocratic Europe and Japan, making war was a highly admired profession. In China, philosophy, poetry, and brush painting were respected during the heyday of the literati. Religion was once the dominant source of normative culture; then, following the Enlightenment, secular humanism was viewed in some parts of the world as the foundation of society. Such normative change is possible, especially in times of crisis.

To accomplish this sort of change, we do not have to give up on capitalism itself. This position does not call for a life of sackcloth and ashes, nor of altruism. And it does not call on poor people or poor nations to be content with their fate and learn to love their misery; clearly, the capitalist economy must be strong enough to provide for the basic creature comforts of all people. But it does call for a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits.

There is strong evidence that when consumption is used to try to address higher needs — that is, needs beyond basic creature comforts — it is ultimately Sisyphean. (A never-ending toil). Several studies have shown that, across many nations with annual incomes above $20,000, there is no correlation between increased income and increased happiness. In the United States since World War II, per capita income has tripled, but levels of life satisfaction remain about the same, while the people of Japan, despite experiencing a six-fold increase in income since 1958, have seen their levels of contentment stay largely stagnant. Studies also indicate that many members of capitalist societies feel unsatisfied, if not outright deprived, however much they earn and consume, because others make and spend even more: Relative rather than absolute deprivation is what counts. This is a problem since, by definition, most people cannot consume more than most others.

Consumerism, it must be noted, afflicts not merely the upper class in affluent societies but also the middle class and many in the working class. Large numbers of people across society believe that they work merely to make ends meet, but an examination of their shopping lists and closets reveals that they spend good parts of their income on status goods such as brand-name clothing, the “right” kind of car, and other assorted items that they don’t really need. This mentality may seem so integral to American culture that resisting it is doomed to futility. But the current economic downturn may provide an opening of sorts.

So far, much of this scaling-back has been involuntary, the result of economic necessity. What is needed next is to help people realize that limiting consumption is not a reflection of failure. Rather, it represents liberation from an obsession — a chance to abandon consumerism and focus on... well, what exactly? What should replace the worship of consumer goods?

It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.

Communitarianism refers to investing time and energy in relations with the other, including family, friends and members of one’s community. The term also encompasses service to the common good, such as volunteering, national service and politics. Communitarian life is not centered around altruism but around mutuality, in the sense that deeper and thicker involvement with the other is rewarding to both the recipient and the giver. Indeed, numerous studies show that communitarian pursuits breed deep contentment. A study of 50-year-old men shows that those with friendships are far less likely to experience heart disease. Another shows that life satisfaction in older adults is higher for those who participate in community service.

Transcendental pursuits refer to spiritual activities broadly understood, including religious, contemplative and artistic ones. The lifestyle of the Chinese literati, centered around poetry, philosophy and brush painting, was a case in point (but a limited one because this lifestyle was practiced by an elite social stratum). In modern society, transcendental pursuits have often been emphasized by bohemians, beginning artists and others involved in lifelong learning who consume modestly. Here again, however, these people make up only a small fraction of society. Clearly, for a culture to buy out of consumerism and move to satisfying higher human needs with transcendental projects, the option to participate in these pursuits must be available on a wider scale”.

Household consumption, that is, the amount of consumer goods purchased, has grown massively over the last 40 years in both Britain and the United States, at a far greater rate than most Northern European countries. This has led to a consequent increase in consumer debt, to levels that are reckoned to expose both economies to another financial crisis if there is a significant recession. The reasons for such levels of consumption are complex, but seem to have a significant relationship to community cohesion as opposed to the levels of “Freedom” and individualism experienced in differing societies, and the social pressures on communities and individuals to follow different norms.

What's behind American consumerism?

As Americans increasingly spend more than they earn, psychological research is providing clues as to why.

By Amy Novotney

One bright spot in the midst of the country's economic downturn may be a long-overdue focus on reining in our spending. Since 1982, Americans' personal savings rate has dropped from 11 percent to below zero, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and personal bankruptcy filings have reached record highs. As the debt load has risen, psychologists have increasingly been called on to explain why Americans overspend. In the last six months alone, APA's Media Referral Service fielded more than 60 requests from media organizations looking to talk to a psychologist about money--more than any other subject during the same time.

Researchers say that new ways of advertising, paired with cultural shifts toward consumerism, seem to be driving the trend.

"Any time the urge strikes, we now have the capability to act on it impulsively, and that creates a much greater challenge for us than was ever the case before," says psychologist Stuart Vyse, PhD, author of "Going Broke: Why Americans Can't Hold On To Their Money" (Oxford University Press, 2008). "It's only natural that we are having trouble with debt."

The almighty impulse

One culprit may be unending demand on our self-control, says Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister. Like a muscle that tires after too much use, taking on too many willpower-taxing tasks depletes our resources, and we have trouble succeeding at any of them, according to research by Baumeister in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 28, No. 4)

"When there are too many other new demands on your time--when you're under stress, meeting deadlines at work, dealing with a difficult relationship--you're going to be at risk for spending more," he says.

Credit cards further undermine our willpower, says Los Angeles clinical psychologist and wealth consultant James Gottfurcht. Before the deregulation of credit-card interest rates in 1978, only wealthier consumers qualified for a credit card. Now the credit-card industry begins soliciting consumers in high school, offering credit often at very high interest rates without requiring financial qualifications or providing guidance in how the cards should be used, says Gottfurcht, co-author of "Blueprint for Success" (Insight Publishing, 2008).

"They're conditioning people into building debt at a very young, vulnerable age," he says.

To make matters worse, psychological research shows that credit cards condition us to give in to impulses. A Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 13, No. 3) study by Purdue University psychologist Richard A. Feinberg, PhD, shows that simply alerting consumers to the fact that an establishment accepts credit cards--by displaying a Visa or MasterCard insignia in the store window--makes them more likely to make a purchase. The findings were true even if the consumer did not use a credit card, Feinberg notes.

Society says: Spend!

Of course, this is no accident. Advertisers spend millions researching how to induce us to purchase, says Vyse, a Connecticut College psychology professor. Their findings often lead to increasingly innovative, and sometimes intrusive, ways to market their products, he adds.

Before the 1970s, he notes, our homes were places of quiet and refuge, where we could not be separated from our money. "You were not a commercial animal at home," says Vyse.

That changed in 1976 with the advent of L.L. Bean's mail-order catalog that enabled consumers to call toll-free to place their orders, and later with TV's home shopping networks. Nowadays, the Internet allows people to easily spend away their paycheck at home, on the road, or even while they're at work earning money.

And while advertisements used to appear exclusively in magazines and newspapers, today they are everywhere: on bathroom stall doors, airplane tray tables and even laser-etched on the shells of eggs.

"There's very little space that your eye can fall on that doesn't have some kind of branded image on it," Vyse says.

But perhaps advertising's most worrisome effect is that it works, and all this purchasing could be driving us into debt and unhappiness. Financial difficulties are the leading cause of marital problems among Americans today, and a 2001 Social Science and Medicine (Vol. 53, No. 4) study suggests that worry about debt can lead to stress and depression. Concern about money even extends to the workplace and can lead to absenteeism, lowered productivity and an increase in stress-related illnesses among workers, according to a 2006 report by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy institute.

LONDON (AFP) - British children are trapped in a cycle of compulsive consumption as parents shower them with gifts to make up for their long working hours, a UNICEF report concluded. Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.

The study, commissioned after British children were ranked by the United Nations as the unhappiest in the industrialised world, blamed the results on a culture of "brand bullying" and a lack of family interaction.

"Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist," said Agnes Nairn, the report's author.

"While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children," she added.

The report's researchers quizzed hundreds of children in Britain, Spain and Sweden to discover what made them happy.

"This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden," Nairn noted.

In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.

Children told researchers that their happiness relied upon spending time with family and friends and having "plenty to do outdoors".

The report blamed British parents for using television "as a babysitter" and for allowing children to play computer games for long periods, depriving them of fresh air.

Looking deeper and Wider: Meaning.

“Meaning” has considerable significance when it comes to human behaviour. Gurnek Bains and colleagues wrote a book called “Meaning Inc” in 2007. It was an examination of what made organisations superior places to work and what stimulated superior performance.

It is worth reviewing their work because what they revealed in the book also applies to communities – and of course large corporations are communities of a sort.

Bains et al define Meaning as coming through the psychological rewards created by doing something that enables people to connect their activities to a sense of belonging to something outside themselves. In this sense, Meaning is mainly created through relationships and creating positive impacts on others- it is most powerfully created by relationships and a sense of communal membership. In this way, it connects broadly with the idea of Social Capital, which is created by social relationships.

Bains and his colleagues identified several major sources of Meaning that affected the commitment of employees and the performance of enterprises.

These are:

The authors say that, “The experience of Meaning can be construed as fundamentally arising from connectedness with something else. A strong and powerful sense of Meaning is created when, in particular, we are able to connect our activities to something else which is significant and which matters to us. It is this sense of significant connectedness that lies at the root of activities that create a psychological sense of meaning.”

The loss of Meaning in Work and Community life

There is much evidence to indicate that the quality of working life and the relationships between individuals and their employers have become degraded in recent years.

Outsourcing of work, the creation of a large group of employees which have temporary , part-time and often insecure work patterns, together with the wholesale automation of significant areas of work, which is liable to become more extreme in the future; have all contributed to a loss of Meaning deriving from the workplace.

The behaviour of many top managers in large corporations, driven by the demands of the financial markets, has had a significant impact on trust and confidence on the part of the wider workforce. There is still a significant part of the workforce in Britain and America that can see an important relationship between their work and the performance of the wider organisation, but there is good evidence that this is decreasing and will continue to do so.

The same applies in communities, many of which have been degraded by the loss of significant employers that provided work for whole families and a sense of history and connectedness between the past, present and future. John Lewis Partnership, a very large British retailer that in the main has Partners rather than employees, provides a wide range of social and sporting facilities for employees. This has a strong effect of binding the community. When I started work in 1960, the large chemical plant that I worked in had many sporting teams, and supported a community theatre that put on plays for the local area. The sports teams played in local leagues against other works teams and also community teams as well, thus creating strong binding forces within the local area. That plant has closed, as have many others, and the community has become weakened by the forced departure of many people to seek work and life elsewhere.

Margaret Thatcher’s remarks about the insignificance of Society demonstrated a signal lack of understanding of the value of community as a provider of Meaning, and protector against atomisation of Society.


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