Why do we buy so much stuff?
It is undoubtedly the case that millions of us buy stuff we don’t really need and then have to buy storage space to keep it. In response, a mini-industry of ‘decluttering’ coaches offer help in sorting our mess. There is plenty of advice on adopting more simple lifestyles and of course, many people globally have no choice but to be frugal as they exist on less than $10 a day. Yet our shops are filled with myriad glittering choices to tempt us into parting with cash. Our economy depends on us buying more and more stuff. The UK economy has been described as too reliant on consumer spending and house price rises, along with easy credit, to fuel that spending. There is, therefore, an external structure to our spending, involving mass marketing and the manufacture of dissatisfaction. Celebrity endorsement and culture are important aspects of this process. You may not look like Kim Kardashian but if you buy the right products you may, all too briefly, feel like her.
Therefore it might be the case that behaviour and choices to buy and consume are also affected by the nature of our social relationships, our social context and the needs of companies to make profits, more than our basic biological drives such as thirst or hunger.
One aspect of our sociality is that our behaviours are driven by the need to differentiate between ourselves. This theory, suggested by Heath and Potter (2005), is that people buy stuff to feel superior, whether that be cooler, better connected, better informed, more discerning, morally superior or just plain richer (p106). Our consumption behaviours might also relate to the idea of ‘status anxiety’ (de Botton 2005), i.e. the desire for social climbing and the attendant anxieties that result from how one is perceived by others. Differentiation and social climbing are indicated by the goods and services you buy.
The psycho-social comparison thesis (Abbot 2007) suggests that people compare themselves in small groups to referent others and where they feel disadvantaged they experience negative emotions injurious to health. To avoid feeling disadvantaged, and to avoid anxiety, we engage in consumption patterns to identify with a valued social person or group, or to differentiate ourselves from those we consider to be ‘the masses’.
Products, goods and services in consumer capitalism are thus not neutral objects devoid of social meanings attached to them. Some are ‘Veblen’ goods named after economist Thorstein Veblen who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’. ‘Veblen’ goods are ‘positional goods’ they reflect the tastes and preferences of consumers, they help to differentiate and position people in the social hierarchy. As their price rises so too does demand for them because of perceived exclusivity and appeal as a status symbol. The ‘sign value’ (Baudrillard 1973) of Veblen goods indicate exclusivity, superiority, differentiation, and high status. Positional goods, such as status, are zero-sum i.e. we can’t all have them but we all want them so we engage in conspicuous consumption to differentiate ourselves. Goods are valued less for their intrinsic worth and more as markers of relative success. If we could all travel first class it would lose its cache and value. We also engage in ‘defensive consumption’, to avoid slipping down the status hierarchy and thus avoiding humiliation.
All of this ‘buying stuff’ becomes a ‘Collective Action Problem’.
Collective Action Problems are those in which everyone wants a good outcome but nobody has a personal incentive to bring it about. In this case, the good outcome would be to save energy, money, time and status anxiety by not engaging in competitive consumption, to decide not to join the race. However, as individuals, we do not have good enough incentives to opt out. The incentive is the other way…to keep buying or risk being seen as inferior. Of course, there are social groups who do refuse to play this game and some are mocked or despised for doing so. To defend themselves against opprobrium, social groups form in clusters to mutually reinforce their personal lifestyle choices as valid. They develop different tastes in clothes, foods and activities often called ‘alternative’.
Taste as a mark of superior distinction is itself a social process much more than reflecting the intrinsic superiority of the object so valued.
Pierre Bourdieu discussed ‘the ideology of natural taste’, i.e. the idea that beauty resides in the object itself, and yet he noticed that the ability to detect bad taste is seemingly distributed only among the ‘elite’. High culture is ‘good taste’ while low culture is indicative of poor taste or so the elites would have us believe. Note many a middle-class celebrity publicly declaring disdain for football. Aesthetic judgment is thus as much a matter of making a social distinction rather than residing in objects as objective facts.
Much of good taste, is also defined negatively:
“Tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others” (Bourdieu 1979 p56).
Thorstein Veblen suggested that:
“the superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty” (in Heath and Potter 2005 p125).
‘Good’ taste is a thus a positional good. Positional goods signify and enable, membership of an exclusive club. Conformity and distinction go together, one conforms to the standards of the distinct class in order to differentiate from the ‘other’. The value of a good comes from a sense of superiority associated with membership of a ‘superior club’. This may apply as much to dreadlocks as to Louis Vuitton bags.
So we buy stuff to satisfy some basic needs, but often this is overwritten by the need to differentiate and to show off.
How else to explain Waitrose?
Abbot S (2007) The psychosocial effects on health of socioeconomic inequalities. Critical Public Health 17(2): 151-158 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233632156_The_psychosocial_effects_on_health_of_socioeconomic_inequalities
Baudrillard J (1973) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis. Telos Press
Bourdieu P (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. MA
De Botton A (2005) Status Anxiety. Penguin. London
Heath J and Potter A (2005) The Rebel Sell.Why the culture can’t be jammed. Capstone.