Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Why insecure people buy more things

Money may not buy you love, but it won't break your heart either.

Money
Shutterstock
  • The link between a poor interpersonal life and materialism has been known for decades, but the exact reason for this connection hasn't been clear.
  • New research shows that two problematic attachment styles can push people towards seeking the love and affection they crave in material wealth.
  • The study shows both how broken-hearted people use materialism as a crutch and how this dependency can be reversed.

What makes somebody materialistic? We know what materialism looks like—constantly pursuing luxury, envying others for their success, desiring more possessions, and being greedy. It's even been shown that materialistic people have worse mental health, a lower sense of well-being, and a general disregard for the environment. But what makes somebody turn out this way is less clear. Could it be genetic? Some result of their upbringing?

New research in the International Journal of Psychology has helped shed light on what it is that makes materialistic people desire physical wealth. Broadly, materialism turns out to be the answer for certain people when they get their hearts broken.

The materialistic and lonely heart

Human beings crave security. That encompasses physical security as well, but what we desire more than most other things is interpersonal security—a sense of being loved, understood, and valued. The first place we get this sense of interpersonal security from is usually our parents.

But not everybody is going to win father or mother of the year. Some parents are cold or neglectful to their children, and, lacking that crucial, initial sense of acceptance, many neglected children grow up to have attachment issues.

Attachment styles come in four major flavors, but this study focused on two problematic forms: attachment anxiety, in which an individual obsessively seeks approval and affection, often in a smothering way that's impossible to truly measure up to; and attachment avoidance, in which an individual simply avoids attachments with others to avoid getting hurt, fostering instead a (often false) sense of independence from others.

A study by Ying Sun and colleagues from the Beijing Key Laboratory of Experimental Psychology examined the interaction between attachment issues and materialism. Prior research had shown that materialism is frequently associated with having cold or neglectful parents and a shaky interpersonal or social life, so it made sense to test whether attachment issues were the mechanism behind a desire for external, physical wealth.

The researchers' hypothesis was that after experiencing disappointing relationships, individuals with attachment anxiety would instead focus their overweening love onto something that couldn't reject them: possessions and wealth. Since individuals with attachment avoidance already avoid all attachments in the first place, Ying Sun believed they would be less materialistic.

Studying the link between attachment and materialism

In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with a statue he carved from marble. In his case, Aphrodite brought his statue to life.

Jean-Léon Gérôme via Wikimedia Commons

Sun and colleagues carried out a series of studies exploring the connection between attachment issues and materialism. In the first, 237 participants filled out a survey designed to assess attachment issues, asking participants to respond to statements like "I worry that partners won't care about me as much as I care about them" and "I am nervous when partners get too close to me."

They also asked for participants' responses to statements on materialism, like "I like a lot of luxury in my life" and "My life would be better if I owned certain things I don't have." As predicted, highly attachment-anxious people were indeed more materialistic.

Attachment-avoidant people were not significantly materialistic when other factors were taken into account that influence materialism. Specifically, gender and family monthly income are known to correlate with materialism; when considering these variables as well, attachment avoidance was not significantly correlated with materialism.

The next study tested whether attachment issues were truly a cause of materialism by artificially bolstering the participants' sense of attachment and then measuring materialism afterwards. The researchers asked half of the participants to think of somebody they turn to for help and assurance, imagine their face, and then describe a situation where that person helped them in detail. As a control, the other half of the study sample was asked to recall an acquaintance and describe a scenario in which they interacted.

Then, the researchers presented the participants with a task designed to measure materialism. The participants viewed a series of words on a computer screen that were materialistic ("money"), neutral ("sky"), or a nonsensical collection of letters. They were told to press a key if the word was meaningful or another key if the word was meaningless.

By measuring the response times to the different categories of words, the researchers were able to determine how accessible materialistic thoughts were to the participants. Highly materialistic people in the control group were able to quickly determine that words like "money" did indeed have meaning—quite a lot of meaning for them.

However, the participants who had been primed to feel an interpersonal connection with another person were slower on the draw: Those words seemed to lack the immediacy and importance that they had before. It's important to note that, as per the researcher's hypothesis, the effects of this study were stronger in participants with attachment anxiety rather than attachment avoidance.

At first glance, these findings might seem very depressing. The lonelier you are, the more likely you are to pursue material things to fill that hole in your heart. But, there's also a more optimistic way of interpreting these results. Materialism may be a temporary and ineffectual solution to a larger problem, but once a lonely person gets what they really need, the crutch is no longer necessary.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Keep reading Show less

Dark Forest theory: A terrifying explanation of why we haven’t heard from aliens yet

The Fermi paradox asks us where all the aliens are if the cosmos should be filled with them. The Dark Forest theory says we should pray we never find them.

If this theory is correct, the day after contact would look like this. (Pixababy)
Surprising Science

The Milky Way galaxy has 200 billion stars and perhaps 100 billion planets. If even a small fraction of those planets harbored life, and even if only a pathetic scattering of those planets had lifeforms which became intelligent, our galaxy would be teeming with alien civilizations, some of whom would be either looking for us or discoverable for at least a little while.

Keep reading Show less

Russia claims world's first COVID-19 vaccine but skepticism abounds

President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced coronavirus vaccine at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Coronavirus
  • Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved in Russia.
  • Scientists around the world are worried that the vaccine is unsafe and that Russia fast-tracked the vaccine without performing the necessary phase 3 trials.
  • To date, Russia has had nearly 900,000 registered cases of coronavirus.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Therapy app Talkspace mined user data for marketing insights, former employees allege

    A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.

    Talkspace.com
    Technology & Innovation
    • In the report, several former employees said that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights."
    • Talkspace denied using user data for marketing purposes, though it acknowledged that it looks at client transcripts to improve its services.
    • It's still unclear whether teletherapy is as effective as traditional therapy.
    Keep reading Show less
    Mind & Brain

    Viewing abstract art causes notable cognitive changes

    Viewing art that doesn't look like anything makes your brain take extra steps to try and get it.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast