Materialism amplifies trauma, research says

With the advent of the holiday shopping season, new research co-authored by Aric Rindfleisch, a University marketing professor, tells a cautionary tale about materialism and its secondary effect on making traumatic events even worse.

The research, conducted by Rindfleisch and co-authors Ayalla Ruvio, of Michigan State University, and Eli Somer, of the University of Haifa in Israel, explored the amplifying effect of materialism on the experience of trauma through an Israeli field study and a U.S. national survey. It was published in July.

“The basic idea is that people who are materialistic seem to suffer more than people who are not materialistic,” Rindfleisch said.

Materialism is the value that people have toward object and how they see material possessions as a source of happiness, he said.

The Israeli component of the study was conducted in two parts: they looked at the consumption practices among participants from an Israeli town under extreme rocket attacks from Palestine for about six months in 2007 and compared it with another Israeli town not exposed to the hostilities.

“We compared two villages with similar demographics, and what we found is that the participants in the village under terrorist attacks suffered higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, more impulsive buying and more compulsive consumption than their less materialistic counterparts in the other Israeli village,” Rindfleisch said.

The U.S. part of the study commissioned a survey of U.S. residents and asked them about their materialistic nature and fear of death. It found that these indirect effects are due to the fact that materialistic people exhibit lower levels of self-esteem, which reduces the ability for someone to cope with traumatic experiences, according to the paper.

“The U.S. study was interesting because obviously, not many of our towns are being bombed so what we did in the survey is try to simulate these sorts of conditions by asking people to tell us about their level of death anxiety, and those who had more anxiety toward death were similar to the participants in the village under terrorist attacks,” Rindfleisch said.

However, traumatic events are not limited to just terrorist attacks.

“It can mean anything from being in a car accident, natural disasters, severe terminal illnesses or near-death experiences,” Rindfleisch said.

With the upcoming holiday shopping season, Rindfleisch said shoppers should take extra caution with buying into hype.

“I think that’s what these sales are designed to do,” he said. “They’re designed to take advantage of these tendencies because in times of stress, people seek solace through shopping. The research suggests that there is some fix with retail therapy and Black Friday shopping and the rest of the shopping season plays into that.”

Though Lan Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at University of Illinois at Chicago, said consumers can combat materialism during the holiday shopping season through generosity.

“Try to think of everyone and everything you are grateful for,” Chaplin said. “I bet you’ll realize how much you have and you won’t feel the need to acquire more stuff.”

Another way to beat materialism this holiday season is to redirect gifts to the less fortunate, Chaplin said.

“If you are a true shopaholic and just enjoy shopping, then redirect your gifts to those who really need it,” Chaplin said. “This is especially important to teach children who are growing up in a highly materialistic world. When all they see is buying more and more stuff without much generosity towards others, they will grow up just taking and taking without giving back.”

For LAS freshman Nehal Patel, Black Friday shopping has been a tradition in her family for years, but she feels that it takes advantage of the sales of the shopping season out of necessity.

“It’s a day to get the stuff that I absolutely need,” Patel said. “My participation in Black Friday and holiday sales is determined by what I need. If I am in dire need for boots, a new phone and some clothes, then I will go to shop. I don’t do it to make myself happy or feel good about myself.”  

Similar to the study done by Rindfleisch, Chaplin’s research finds that low self-esteem causes materialism. When her research team experimentally raised children’s self-esteem, they observed a decrease in level of materialism. 

“We also found that materialism heightens around early adolescence when teens are hypercritical of themselves. Their self-esteem drops and their materialism increases,” Chaplin said. “There’s good news though because by late adolescence around ages 16 or 17, teenagers’ self-esteem rebounds and materialism decreases.”

Julianne can be reached at