Two professors embark on research to uncover people’s perceptions of those who acquire things versus experiences.
So, you thought that hot little sports car was going to make you happier? Cooler, even? More admired?
Don’t count on it. In fact, if people catch even the faintest whiff of triumph or braggadocio from you, they’re more likely to think of you as insecure, self-centered, judgmental and less likeable.
On the other hand, if you spent some disposable income on, say, your dream adventure of canoeing in Canada to see the northern lights and hear wolves howl at the moon, people are likely to see you as humorous, open-minded, friendly, intelligent and caring.
In other words, if you want people to admire and like you, spend your money on experiences, not things, according to CU-Boulder researchers Leaf Van Boven, associate professor of psychology, and Margaret Campbell, associate professor at the Leeds School of Business.
“People form impressions of us based on how we pursue happiness,” Van Boven says. “When people observe others behaving in materialistic ways and reflecting the belief that having material things makes them happier, they make an inference that those people are materialistic and therefore not very social.”
Religious leaders have been preaching this for centuries. Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that “attachment” is the cause of all suffering. Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and Aristotle concluded that doing and being are a straighter path to happiness than having.
“It’s not that people don’t take pleasure in nice things,” says Robert H. Frank, economics professor at Cornell University whose seminal 1999 work Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess is cited in Campbell’s and Van Boven’s work. “They often do. But there is no evidence that people are any happier for having those things.”
Campbell and Van Boven, who met at CU through their interest in consumer behavior, came to some additional conclusions: Materialistic people behave badly and such behavior makes social relationships difficult. Research cited in support of that conclusion has found that materialistic people are “more Machiavellian” and “behave less cooperatively” — and people know it.
But let’s clarify something first. The researchers make a distinction between buying material necessities, such as food and clothing, and goods bought with disposable income. The two do not suggest that a family that spends its scarce grocery money on a trip to the amusement park is going to be “happier.”
And of course it’s not always easy to distinguish between what’s “material” and what’s “experiential” — is a piano a thing, an experience or both?
More important is how the acquirer of things or experiences comes across to other people. Campbell and Van Boven agree it’s entirely possible to use an “experience,” say, a heli-skiing trip, as a brickbat to impress others (which, ironically, just about guarantees it won’t).
“Did they take the trip so they can come back and tell everyone they went on this great trip, or because they truly wanted to go out and commune with self and nature?” Campbell asks.
“It’s not the act itself,” Van Boven says, “but the meaning we put on the act.”
It all has to do with whether one’s motivation is “intrinsic” — engaging in an activity or purchase for its inherent value — versus “extrinsic” — primarily doing something in search of status or admiration. Run a marathon to brag about it: extrinsic. Run to push your personal limits, lose weight or — no, really — have fun: intrinsic.
“We generally see that people who are making materialistic purchases are more extrinsically motivated,” says Campbell, who says her specialty is exploring what she calls “the dark side of marketing.”
On the flip side, not every material purchase automatically paints the buyer as a braggart or a cad. For every guy cruising in a snazzy ragtop sports car with personalized plates, there’s a buyer who truly appreciates and loves an object for itself.
If you buy something because you truly appreciate the value of, for example, finely constructed clothing or jewelry that is durable and meant to last, others probably will view that in a pretty favorable light, Van Boven says.
And here’s a comforting wrinkle for the holiday season: Buying gifts for others, no matter how lavish, especially for traditional holidays, is almost always viewed as generous.
But despite a growing “voluntary simplicity” movement (“That would be an interesting area of study,” Cornell author Frank says), Van Boven isn’t so naïve as to think people living in our materialistic society are suddenly
going to eschew Gucci for game night
en masse. And he admits that applying some idealistic notions gleaned from
his research doesn’t always fly in the
“I’ve tried to apply some of these lessons of gift giving in my own family,” he says. “They haven’t responded particularly well if I suggest they are not going to get presents.”
But the lessons from Van Boven’s and Campbell’s research, and others before them, are unequivocal.
“More fun, less stuff!” Van Boven says.