The acquisition of material possessions is inherent to American culture. Ideally in this country, anyone that works hard and captures various opportunities can excel economically, and what better way is there to show the world you made it than buying a huge house, luxury car, and a solid gold toilet? But, does working solely to buy more nice things (i.e. materialism) lead to satisfaction in life?
The first study I came across was an observational study conducted by Tim Kasser. To conduct this study, Kasser created a questionnaire, “The Aspiration Index,” measuring people’s valuation of certain goals. That questionnaire, along with four other questionnaires that “assessed positive feelings of well-being and negative feelings of distress,” were distributed to 316 students at the University of Rochester. He then used statistical analyses “to examine how people’s value orientations related to their well-being.” The analyses revealed a direct correlation with materialism, depression, and anxiety. This first study of Kasser’s has an ample sample size of 316, but he did not specify if his distribution was random. If the questionnaires were give to a specific group of people, it may not accurately represent the population has a whole. Also, since this was an observational study, reverse causation cannot be ruled out. If someone is depressed, it seems possible that he/she might think material possessions could make them happier. Likewise, if someone suffers from anxiety, valuing and having nice things could reduce symptoms. Furthermore, there are many possible confounding variables that are not accounted for. For example, the actions of the parents of the college children. If the parents of the child were materialistic, they might have focused more on making money than about the well being of the child. This causes the child to be depressed and he or she has materialistic tendencies because his or her parents do.
Kasser went further with the study, however. Instead of college students, Kasser observed adults in Rochester. He randomly chose 100 adults, ages 18-79, in Rochester and gave the the same questionnaires. The results were in accordance to his first study; Materialism, depression, and anxiety are directly correlated. Although this study was random, a sample size of 100 is quite small, and it still does not answer my concerns about confounding variables and reverse causation. Also, are people living in Rochester, NY an accurate representation of all humanity? Probably not. However, Kasser does go on however to state that similar studies in other countries reveal similar findings.
In his paper, Kasser also discusses many other studies that reveal the same positive correlation between materialism and low well-being. Therefore, an important contribution of this debate is a meta-analysis. Newell Wright of Western Carolina University and Val Larsen of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University conducted a meta-analysis on the issue. There meta-analysis, Materialism and Life Satisfaction, “examined the materialism/satisfaction relationship. It shows that the negative correlation between these variables is consistent across all studies.” It seems that this meta-analysis further supports the hypothesis that materialism causes a lower well-being, but the meta-analysis poses the possibility that this hypothesis is a victim of confirmation bias and the file drawer problem. The studies’ results may conflict with the scientists ideology. If the scientists believe in socialism and social equality, they will be more keen on finding and publishing results that support their ideology. It is more news worthy to publish a study that denounces materialism, a sort of status quo in America. Also, the study could influence public opinion about political policy. Likewise, if any of their results found a correlation between materialism and higher well-being, they could be left in the file drawer, never to be published because it goes against their ideology and political agenda. Furthermore, the meta-analysts stated that there were, in fact, a handful of studies that studied positive effects of materialism and found a direct correlation. Since there apparently are several studies about the positive effects, I am led to believe even further that this hypothesis falls victim to the file drawer problem.
Studying the affects of materialism on well-being is very difficult because there is no way to conduct an experiment. Scientists can not simply manipulate the materialistic personalities of a human being to study the hypothesis that materialism causes a lower well-being. At this point there have been only properly replicated observations in regard to this hypothesis. Although these observations consistently reject the null hypothesis, a file drawer problem seems to be present. I would like to see more studies on the matter that do an effective job ruling out reverse causation and confounding variables.