Published: Sept. 25, 2013

When the going gets tough, the materialistic go shopping

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949 Andy.Henion@cabs.msu.edu, Ayalla Ruvio Marketing office: (517) 432-6429 cell: (267) 632-7650 aruvio@msu.edu

Materialistic people experience more stress from traumatic events such as terrorist attacks and are more likely to spend compulsively as a result, according to an international study led by a Michigan State University business professor.

These possession-driven folks tend to have lower self-esteem than others, said Ayalla Ruvio, assistant professor of marketing in MSU's Broad College of Business.

“When the going gets tough, the materialistic go shopping,” said Ruvio. “And this compulsive and impulsive spending is likely to produce even greater stress and lower well-being. Essentially, materialism appears to make bad events even worse.”

For the first part of the study, Ruvio and colleagues surveyed 139 citizens from a southern Israeli town under extreme rocket attacks from Palestine for about six months in 2007. Ruvio, who is from northern Israel, coordinated the data collection amid the terrorist attacks. Her co-researchers were Eli Somer, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Aric Rindfleisch, business professor and department head at the University of Illinois.

The researchers also surveyed 170 residents from another Israeli town that was not under attack.

The results: Highly materialistic people, when faced with a mortal threat, reported much higher levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms and impulsive and compulsive buying than their less materialistic counterparts.

“The relationship between materialism and stress may be more harmful than commonly thought,” Ruvio said.

For the second part of the study, the researchers set out to examine the factors behind the effects of materialism observed in Israel. They commissioned a survey of 855 U.S. residents and asked about their materialistic nature and fear of death.

The second part of the study also found that materialistic people are more likely to try to relieve fear of death through impulsive and out-of-control spending. In this case, the effects occurred not just in response to a specific threat such as a terrorist attack but as a way to cope with general anxiety about mortality.

The findings suggest that materialism’s intensifying effect on extreme stress may be driven by a global response to fear of death and by low self-esteem.

The results may extend to a wide variety of contexts. Post-traumatic stress arises from a host of events such as automobile accidents, criminal attacks and natural disasters. Ruvio said future research should address the relationship between stress and materialism in different contexts.

The study appears in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

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