2014-02-14

Do Nice Neighborhoods Manufacture Materialism?

A survey shows that upward mobility makes people want more status symbol stuff--especially if you're young.

What does upward mobility look like? For most, it means a nicer job, nicer stuff, and probably a nicer neighborhood. "One day I'll get out of this podunk town and make something of myself," an enterprising young bootstrapper might say. The latter is expected. But it also might be making us spend more impulsively.

Researchers from San Francisco State University, writing in the Journal of Consumer Culture, say that living in wealthier neighborhoods is linked to materialistic values and impulsive buying. Their survey of a representative sample of 3,000 people from nearly 2,000 ZIP codes around the U.S. showed that the higher a person's neighborhood socioeconomic status, the more they exhibited these behaviors. For young people in wealthy city neighborhoods, the relationship was even stronger than for the survey group as a whole.

Study co-author Ryan Howell believes the results are related to the idea of "relative deprivation." "What a lot of research is converging to show these days is that materialism is often a coping mechanism to buy respect and status into a group," he says. "So if you're essentially young, not relatively wealthy, and live around wealth--those are the people who are most susceptible to feeling like they need to be more wealthy."

Howell measured materialist values by how closely survey respondents associated being happy with having more stuff. He suspects that young people might be more susceptible to materialistic values because they're using their possessions to try and attract mates.

"We see people getting more materialistic as we move away from the financial crash," he says. "Millennials have different values system, but all you need to do is go into an urban area and go into a hipster coffee shop, and the material products are obvious."

Howell's results go against much of the popular thinking when it comes to those millennial values--research that Co.Exist has written about before. And while many disagree with what Howell's saying, his data tell a different story. "I went to look at my data, and we see the exact opposite trend," he says. "I don't want to put my whole heart and soul into saying people are becoming more materialistic, but I think what they want to put their money in, and what status they want to buy--that might be changing."

Consider it the difference between wanting to buy a luxury SUV and wanting to buy all the fair trade, shade-grown organic coffee you can. Or Apple products. All are status symbols, in a sense, though each confers a different kind of status.

But Howell's research contains a lot of unanswered questions. Why do we consistently choose spending money on stuff over experience? And where does technology as a consumer product and as an experience converge?

That's where Howell's research is headed next, he says. If you want to be a part of it, you can help by taking a materialist values quiz here.

[Image: Modern Apartment via Flickr user Mikhal Golub]

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