Time and time again, it can be observed that individuals who find themselves in a negative situation or a difficult environment make poorer decisions. Moreover, their own dissatisfaction and/or insecurity often leads them to seek affirmation through materialistic possessions. This phenomenon is further reinforced by the culture of self-expression found in social networks. The resulting pattern of consumerism can lead to long-term goals being undermined. The question thus arises as to why individuals put their long-term success at risk and make (poor) consumption decisions when they find themselves in a negative situation. This post will look at why individual consumption is used as a coping strategy, how this behavior affects long-term goals, and why individuals often find themselves in a negative spiral of sorts.
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Affiliation is not just a desire that many people have within themselves, but a fundamental need. However, social exclusion is a phenomenon from which many people suffer. It leads to the feeling of pain and has a negative impact on the psychological and physiological functioning of those affected. While it is often argued that consumption is intended to express individuality and provide differentiation from other individuals, what is important to these individuals is belonging and being part of a group. Consumption can also be understood as a symbolic expression through which to communicate. Individuals who are socially isolated also view their consumption choices as a way to feel connected to others. They adapt their own behavior to the behavior of the people to whom they seek connection. This invariably leads to spending money on something they don’t need or on things they have a negative attitude towards. In some cases, this behavior increases to the point that it becomes self-destructive.¹ The realization that one’s behavior is causing one harm is difficult for many to bear. Instead of adjusting behavior, however, it happens frequently that those affected look for a shortcut or an easier way and avoid responsibility. They try to run away from themselves and their realization. One approach individuals take to do this is materialism, attempting to create a new identity through symbolic consumption. Materialism can be understood as a belief which prioritizes materialistic possessions and views them as a desirable goal in life. Individuals who pursue such goals often suffer from negative emotions and see (excessive) consumption as a way to escape the resulting pain. Empirical evidence suggests, however, that possessions do not make people happy, but rather reinforce negativity. This results from the fact that those who are affected usually neglect their long-term goals and focus only on short-term compensation.²
Individuals facing social or emotional challenges often exhibit less self-discipline and resort to unhealthy strategies to cope with their own problems. Irresponsible consumption decisions are a specific example of such behavior. Individuals repeatedly view spending money as a coping mechanism for negative emotions. However, it is important to note that from a psychological perspective, spending money as a coping mechanism is different from impulsive and compulsive spending behaviors as coping focuses on dealing with negative emotions. The associated behavior can be triggered by cues from the environment as well as by false efficacy beliefs. The realization of a purchase may lead to immediate gratification and positive emotions, which may briefly mask the negative thoughts. In the long run, however, such behavior is more likely to lead to further (financial) problems and higher stress levels.³
The focus on materialistic prosperity seems to be increasingly shaping our view of society. In the age of social networks, everyone has the opportunity to present themselves and their possessions to a broad audience. The compulsion to present oneself is – at least perceived – omnipresent. The ubiquitous display of wealth and material possessions leads many people to believe that this is a desirable standard. If this creates an expectation, more and more individuals will be tempted to strive for material possessions. Individuals who do not live in stable social structures run the risk of attaching too much value to materialistic things. The feeling that social belonging is based on consumption paints a deceptive picture and could tempt people to make bad decisions. It is likely that isolation in the pandemic has led to even more people being plagued by a sense of exclusion and lack of social connection. Restrictions in daily life have drastically reduced opportunities to experience fulfillment and satisfaction. In an age where online commerce is the new norm for shopping, this is an effective option for experiencing immediate gratification. The financial burden that this can create is accepted without being aware of the resulting consequences. It is undisputed that dealing with negative situations is challenging. However, individuals should never put their self-esteem on the back burner even in these situations. The positive emotions that can be triggered by immediate gratification should never lead to compromising long-term goals.
Individuals let their emotions lead them to make worse choices. An example of this is unhealthy consumer behavior to cope with negative experiences and situations. The desire for social affiliation can also tempt people to place an overly strong focus on consumption. The unconscious use of available resources risks undermining long-term goals in order to experience short-term gratification. Positive emotions resulting from short-term consumption usually evaporate again in a short time and can only be maintained through repeated consumption. Those affected thus run the risk of falling into a negative spiral from which it is difficult to recover. Instead, individuals should invest in sustainable coping strategies in order to be able to benefit even from negative experiences and challenges that are unavoidable for everyone.
¹ Mead, N. L., Baumeister, R. F., Stillman, T. F., Rawn, C. D., & Vohs, K. D. (2011). Social exclusion causes people to spend and consume strategically in the service of affiliation. Journal of consumer research, 37(5), 902-919.
² Donnelly, G. E., Ksendzova, M., Howell, R. T., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2016). Buying to blunt negative feelings: Materialistic escape from the self. Review of General Psychology, 20(3), 272-316.
³ Rice, A., Garrison, Y. L., & Liu, W. M. (2020). Spending as Social and Affective Coping (SSAC): Measure Development and Initial Validation. The Counseling Psychologist, 48(1), 78-105.