Can I Buy a Whole New Me? Materialism and Self Concept

Can I Buy a Whole New Me? Materialism and Self Concept

“I shop, therefore I am”
-Heather Chandler

Behaviourists such as Frederic Skinner believe that material acquisitions are central to our being. As you may have guessed already, the study of self dominates the study of motivation. How we view ourselves is multifaceted and based on how we see ourselves and how we believe other people see us, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

William James was one of the first to coin the phrase self-esteem, describing that our ability to perform a certain task successfully has a direct impact on our self belief. As we saw in the last chapter, Self Psychology proposes that our self belief is something that can be influenced by the opinions of others. Unlike self concept, self esteem places a value proposition on our worth as a person. Self concept, famously defined by Morris Rosenburg is “the totality of the individual’s feelings having reference to himself as an object” and this has never been more true in our materialistic world. This implies that the self concept is something separate from ourselves, contracted somewhere in our psyche that we aim to relate to.

At this point I can imagine that you are wondering what this has got to do with materialism. Well, most of our motives seek to aid and develop our relationship with ourselves. In fact, as our modern world highlights, our Self concept has become a major theme in one’s life.

In my own life I know this to be true. Through my teens and especially into my twenties I was exceptionally insecure. I was consumed with consumption and my buying habits were excused by my fluctuating moods. My drug of choice was clothes. Once I saw something I liked I would become obsessed until I bought it. Retrospectively, I can see that it was a desperate attempt to be liked and accepted by others. I also think that it had to do with ease of online shopping that drove my impulses out of control.

I think if we all really examined our motives behind our purchases we would see that they correlate to our sense of worth and our ideal image of ourselves. I’m talking luxury purchases here - not buying food or pants. Which we will all agree are an absolute necessity. Well, maybe not all of us.

Products and their consumption are one way in which people can create and maintain a self image, lured by carefully curated brands that are made to enhance our identity. Our possessions then help us to define a self image and create an identity. Through the use of these products we attempt to build and enhance our self concepts. One of the most common theories of self when exploring consumer behaviour is the Self Imagine Congruence Hypothesis, which basically states that consumer products have personalities and we like brands that have a similar image to our own.

Products are not just consumed for their use. It has to do with the meaning that has been placed on them by culture and what they say about the consumer’s place in society and their role. We learn, remind and define ourselves based on our products and we use that same logic when assessing others. Conspicuous consumption is something which has grown increasingly since the emergence of social media. Describing the process of buying obviously expensive items to convey one’s wealth, researchers now understand this is one of the most powerful means we have of conveying our wealth and worth, to others. Evolutionary theorist David Buss suggests that the need to appear to be wealthy and attractive may be a component of our evolution, something that is passed down through our genes.

Abraham Maslow identified that human beings have an innate need for belonging. This evolutionary feature of our psyche stems from a time when we needed protection from predators amongst a few other things. Humans do this in a number of ways, such as imitation of other’s behaviours, as noted by William James. In 1902 Charles Horton Cooley used the metaphor the looking glass self, which suggests that an individual’s sense of self and self belief is formed by the perceptions they have of how others perceive them.  Also around that time George Herbert Meade in 1913 believed that self concept played a huge part in our interactions with the nature and the environment.

Since then numerous ideas emerged which focused less on the Self in the traditional sense of functionality, moving to a conceptual idea that one creates. George Zinkham and Jae Hong suggested that Self Concept is a cognitive structure that influences our behaviour and feelings. Further suggestions, such as Grubb & Grathwohl, believe the self concept is developed based on the perceptions and responses of other people. Our interactions allow us to harvest information based on our estimation’s of others opinions of us, thus allowing us to alter our behaviour constantly striving for better. Therefore, our sense of self could be described as being dependant on what other people think. Solomon goes a little further to identify this process as reflexive evaluation.

Self Concept has been broadly designed into four main categories. According to Jamal et al. these are The Actual Self which has to do with how we view ourselves, Ideal Self which is the self we would like to be, Social Self which is how we think others view us and Ideal Social Self, which is how we would like to be viewed.

One study, conducted by Marisa Toth from the University of Nevada, showed that high self-monitors, which are considered by psychologist Charles Snyder as those who care greatly about how others perceive them and their choices, purchased products which reflected the attributes they wished others would ascribe to them. This showed that Ideal Social Self image was the highest predictor of brand evaluation by high self-monitors. Low self-monitors, described as those who consume products in line with their own self image, choose products dependent on how they would like to see themselves and this also showed to be consistent with the  hypothesis. Another interesting element was that the views of the brands doing this study were more diverse on certain products in the low self-monitors group.

Self monitoring also affects the products that people buy in public. This means that, as you push your trolley around the supermarket, your subconscious mind is encouraging you to make daring biscuit choices so you can impress the person next to you browsing the digestives. High self monitors rely on product image, whereas low self monitors rely on product performance. Auty and Elliot tested this theory out in 1998, using branded and unbranded Levi jeans. Their results were consistent with the hypothesis showing high self monitors viewed the same jeans badly when they were unbranded and well when they were branded.

Likewise Yan Zhang and Skyler Hawk in Considering the Self in the Link Between Self-Esteem and Materialistic Values: The Moderating Role of Self-Contrual explore the relationship of Materialism and low-self esteem. The results showed that self imagine was a factor in determining materialism, while low self-esteem was a predictor.

Luxury and necessity products are growing in their demand as they portray something about our image and self image. Products have a symbolic meaning and our purchasing choices suggest a lot about what we think about ourselves. Shopping is another saddening reflection on the self. As we saw, compulsive buying is a behaviour that someone has no control over. Some do it to relieve anxiety, others do it for social connection, mainly doing it to be liked. Addictive behaviours generally stem from a feeling of low self esteem and associated mental health issues.

“You know what? I’m just going to buy the car. I just want to feel good”
- Genuine quote from one of my more ecologically minded friends

Tim Kessler, who wrote The High Price Of Materialism also suggested, self-esteem is often dependant on external factors and in this way people can view their acquisitions as a direct reflection of personal value and worth.

While self image may be a perfectly natural system, it is a horribly fragile construct that can have a damaging impact on our lives. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter along with photographer Adelaide deMeil, went to Papua New Guinea and exposed tribes people to pictures and images of themselves for the very first time. Attempting to explore the effect of modern media on native communities, they detailed their fieldwork in the book Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!

Carpenter quite literally held a mirror up to people and watched as these people got to explore their own self awareness from a visual sense in an unheard of way. What Carpenter discovered was that the image that people had of themselves and their actual appearance didn’t match. In fact, most of the tribespeople found the image of themselves a very frightening and confronting experience. Carpenter notes their reaction to hearing their own voice for the first time, “The terror in their eyes is the terror in their eyes at being recognised as individuals”.


Carpenter describes handing two tribal men Polaroid pictures of themselves and although initially neither man could comprehend the image, he recounts that “recognition gradually came into the subject’s face. And fear.” He goes on to explain, “You can see it in the film footage. The man with the hat suddenly seems self-conscious about the hat. He hesitantly takes it off, hesitantly puts it back on and finally stands awkwardly with his hat off, staring at the image and then back to the camera that took the image. The other man retreats to a house to be alone, staring at his image for over 20 minutes”.

Carpenter speaks of the disorientation experienced by the young men who learned to write their own name. Understanding our identity and individuality is an aspect of our experience that is so often unacknowledged. We are the topic of our own self reflection and introspection and the thought that culturally one might not be that way inclined seems alien.

While you might be thinking at this point: media ruins lives, it does is some instances, no question, but for most it just creates another plane of existence on which we have to understand ourselves. Edmund Carpenter was heavily influenced by philosopher and communication expert Marshall MuLuhan and this is obvious in his reflections following the experiment, “I think media are so powerful that they swallow cultures”. Carpenter knew that we would merge our identities with media: “Those who find the physical and social environments too demanding, too messy, sometimes seek to live as far as possible, within media environments”. The influence that culture, society and, more recently, media have had on who we are is huge. I think that it is natural to be curious as to who we were before it. Social media, in some people, has become an extension and concept of oneself all of its own. Arguably, in younger people, it has become the most dominant and active aspect of Self.

Social media has changed our attitude to, and expressions of, wealth. One study, by Ottmar Braun and Robert Wicklund which Kessler details, was conducted on German students examining the relationship between their Ideal Self Image and Conspicuous Consumption, stating that when they did not achieve their ideal self image they took part in conspicuous consumption to portray that unattained level of status. This strange deception also translates into people’s personal lives and friendships. Displays of wealth are generally done to improve our relationships.
“Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”
- The Notorious B.I.G.

However, Kessler notes that materialism and the pursuit of wealth do not equate to better relationships. To the materialist, other people become objects that can further their own aims. These are known as instrumental friendships. It is unsurprising that longitudinal studies have shown materialists have negative associations with pro-social and pro-environmental attitudes, lower empathy and generosity, which could, in tern, be detrimental for the planet, future generations and other species.    

On a work trip to Las Vegas, I did what one naturally does when on a work trip to Vegas - sit around the pool all day and avoid work like I owed it money. My eye got drawn to a couple, the girl posing in an aspirational fashion, while the boyfriend took some snaps. I had no idea how much effort people put into these social media pictures. It takes serious commitment. The whole ordeal took forty minutes, in the forty degree Vegas summer sun. Observing this was an interesting insight into the lengths people will go through to maintain a self image. A sight like this is now commonplace and expected and living in a holiday destination it is something that I see daily.

Mainstream beliefs are viewed constantly in today's culture as ‘normal’. However, in reality the mainstream belief is an ideology that reflects that view of the majority. These sets of beliefs affect choices across every aspect of our lives, from our careers, relationships, location, religion and food choices. During the evolution of man we learned quickly to conform to the majority of the group, altering our external facade to become the most socially acceptable version of ourselves. All the while, internally and privately, we are exploring an imagined world of choice. Many of these mainstream beliefs that we now subscribe to serve to keep us locked in what is now considered to be ‘societal norms’. In reality, just as no two finger prints are alike, neither are people. Many of us are now aware that these mainstream beliefs and preferences are designed not by the majority, but by an economic system whose ultimate goal is to create conformity and economic growth. What is more confronting about the modern day ‘normal’, is our generalised acceptance of it, while the notion of some spiritual universality is viewed as laughable.

One of the most destructive aspects of our consumer culture is that it has seeped beyond our need for control over products and into people. Our obsession with celebrity culture is morbid, as our interest in destroying their privacy has allowed us to turn questionable practises, such as stalking, into business. Most noticeably this occurred in the hounding of Britney Spears and Caroline Flack, which demonstrated the absence of protection for celebrities from the media. Practises such as this, feed our collective need for superiority and control over our avatars of wealth and success. While this example, on the surface, may seem to have no correlation to our climate crisis, I beg to differ. Our media acts as a barometer which gauges the level of our collective consciousness, by actively displaying what consumes our attention. 

Tay, a Twitter Bot, was unleashed on the world in 2016 by Microsoft, designed as an experiment to aid with conversational understanding. Described as being a “casual and playful” conversationalist, Tay was designed to learn through his interactions with people, getting smarter each time. Essentially Tay operated as a mirror, reflecting back the opinions, ideals and attitudes of those who he came into contact with, and,  as you can imagine, it wasn’t pretty. Tay became the target and reproducer of an onslaught of racist, misogynistic and antisemitic tweets, in less than a day.

The media and news outlets have always made me a little uneasy as I have often pondered how our daily news becomes curated to deliver to us exactly what we need to know. When I was overcoming depression, my initial protocol was simple: take your medication, meditate and absolutely no news.

Media outlets are not in place for our benefit, they are in place to command our consciousness. Media, as we discussed, is becoming increasingly fragmented as many in powerful positions use it to push their agendas.

More commonly media is to push the agenda of lack. This lack then encourages us to increase our consumption further. Causing us stress and misery as we struggle to maintain our self concept build on a shaky tower of material goods, gym subscriptions and expensive nights out. When we can realised that these things are not us, they were just systems of self concept that we think define me. They don’t. They just occasionally create copious amount of stress, premature greying and some ulcers. No biggie.


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