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M.

JOSEPH SIRGY

MATHERIALISM AND QUALITY OF LIFE

ABSTRACT. An attempt is made in this paper to establish a foundation for


a theory of materialism and quality of life. The theory posits that overall life
satisfaction (quality of life) is partly determined by satisfaction with standard of
living. Satisfaction with standard of living, in turn, is determined by evaluations
of ones actual standard of living compared to a set goal. Materialists experience
greater dissatisfaction with their standard of living than nonmaterialists, which in
turn spills over to overall life causing dissatisfaction with life in general. Materialists experience dissatisfaction with their standard of living because they set
standard of living goals that are inflated and unrealistically high. These goals set
by materialists are more influenced by affective-based expectations (such as ideal,
deserved, and need-based expectations) than cognitive-based ones (such as predictive, past, and ability based expectations). Materialists ideal standard-of-living
expectations are influenced by social comparisons involving remote referents,
more so than comparisons involving standards that are situationally imposed.
Examples of situationally-imposed standards are perceptions of wealth, income,
and material possessions of family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and so on. In
contrast, examples of standards based on remote sources are perceptions of standard of living of others in ones community, town, state, country, other countries;
perceptions of standard of living of others based on gender, age, education, ethnicity, occupation, and social class. This tendency to use remote referents in social
comparisons may account for materialists inflated and value-laden expectations
of their standard of living. Materialists deserved standard-of-living expectations
are influenced by the tendency to engage in equity comparisons involving income
and work. Thus, materialists compare themselves with others that seem to have
more income and worked no harder. These equity comparisons generate feelings of
inequity, injustice, anger, or envy. These emotions may also account for materialists inflated and value-laden expectations of their standard of living. Materialists
standard-of-living expectations based on minimum needs are influenced by the tendency to spend more than generate income. This proclivity to overconsume and
underproduce may be partly responsible for materialists inflated and value-laden
expectations of their standard of living.

INTRODUCTION

Religious teachers (e.g., Jesus, Mahavira) and philosophers (e.g.,


Plato, 1973; Hegel, 1977) have long celebrated the joys of the spirit
and intellect above and in opposition to those of material wealth. Belk

Social Indicators Research 43: 227260, 1998.


c 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

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(1983, 1984, 1985) drew upon the existentialism of Satre (1943) to


support a claim that people cannot find happiness through materialism. In Belks reading, Satre distinguished among three levels of
existence: having, doing, and being. In having, the lowest of the
three states, people tend to be preoccupied with the accumulation
of wealth and material possessions. In doing, they are preoccupied
with lifestyles activities rather than wealth and possession of material things. In being, the highest level of existence, they find serenity
in their identity as free beings, in who they are rather than in what
they have or do.
Empirical work done to date seems to support this long-standing
position of religious leaders and philosophers. In this stream of
research, a consistent finding emerges this is that materialism is
negatively related with overall life satisfaction. In a meta-analysis of
studies treating the relationship (Belk, 1985; Cole et al., 1991; Dawson and Bamossy, 1990, 1991; Richins, 1987; Richins and Dawson,
1992; Sirgy et al., 1993), Wright and Larsen (1993) found a stable,
medium-sized negative correlation.
An attempt is made in this paper to explain this negative relationship between materialism and life satisfaction by establishing a
foundation for a theory of materialism. This theory posits that overall
life satisfaction (quality of life) is partly determined by satisfaction
with standard of living. Satisfaction with ones standard of living, in
turn, is mostly determined by evaluations of ones actual standard of
living compared to a set goal. Ones set goal of standard of living,
in turn, is mostly determined by affective-based wealth expectations
(ideal, deserved, and need-based) and cognitive-based expectations
(predictive, past, and ability-based).
Through this theory, we will argue that the negative relationship
between materialism and life satisfaction can be explained through
the mediation effect of self-evaluations of standard of living. Specifically, we will argue that materialists tend to experience grater
dissatisfaction with their own standard of living than nonmaterialists, which in turn spills over to overall life causing dissatisfaction with life in general. Materialists experience dissatisfaction
with their own standard of living because they set their standardof-living goals unrealistically high. These goals set by materialists
are more influenced by affective-based wealth expectations (such

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as ideal, deserved, and need-based expectations) than cognitivebased ones (such as predictive, past, and ability based expectations).
Materialists ideal wealth expectations are in turn influenced by
social comparisons involving remote referents, more so than comparisons involving referents that are situationally imposed. Examples of situationally-imposed referents are perceptions of standard
of living of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. In contrast,
examples of remote referents are perceptions of wealth of others
in ones community, town, state, country, other countries; perceptions of standard of living of others based on gender, age, education,
ethnicity, occupation, and social class. Materialists deserved expectations of standard of living are influenced by the tendency to engage
in equity comparisons involving income and work. Thus, materialists compare themselves with others that seem to have more income
and worked no harder. These equity comparisons generate feelings
of inequity, injustice, anger, or envy. Materialists standard-of-living
expectations based on minimum needs are influenced by their tendency to spend more than they generate income. This proclivity
for overconsumption (and underproduction) is partly responsible for
inflated and value-laden expectations of their standard of living.
Thus, the purpose of this paper is to advocate a theory of materialism that is capable of explaining the negative relationship between
materialism and life satisfaction. Testable hypotheses can be developed from this theory guiding empirical research. To reiterate, our
purpose here is only to develop a nomological network of concepts
making up a foundation of a theory of materialism and quality of life.
Thus, ideas are put forth in a postulate form rather than in propositional or hypothesis form. Future attempts can be made to construct
models with specific theoretical propositions or hypotheses from the
postulates put forth in this paper. These theoretical propositions or
hypotheses can then be subjected to empirical testing.

HOW MATERIALISM AFFECTS QUALITY OF LIFE: TOWARD A SOCIAL


PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORY

We will start out by defining the material life domain in relation


to other life domains. Then we will explain how affect from the
material life domain influences evaluations of overall life. We will

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explain satisfaction with material wealth in terms of expectancy


confirmation/disconfirmation. We will show how confirmation/
disconfirmation experiences involve a comparison between ones
perception of his or her standard of living and ones set aspirations
of wealth. Following this we will explain how materialists tend to
set standard-of-living goals that are unrealistically high and more
value laden than nonmaterialists. Doing so causes materialists to
feel more dissatisfied with their own standard of living, which in
turn contributes to their feelings of unhappiness with life. Then we
will make an attempt to explain how materialists inflated and valueladen expectations are determined by the self-evaluations involving
three types of affectively-based wealth expectations, namely ideal,
deserved, and minimum needs.
The Material Life Domain
Social psychologists have long recognized that the self-concept is not
a unidimensional construct. The self-concept is multidimensional
in that in the mind of every person there may be multiple selves
(Brewer and Nakamura, 1984; Garza and Herringer, 1987; Hoelter,
1985; Markus, 1977; McCall and Simmons, 1978). The self-concept
is divided in terms of psychological life domains. Thus, a person
may have a self-concept in relation to education, family, health, job,
friends, romantic relationships, standard of living, among others. In
other words, the psychological world of a person is divided into life
domains, and within each life domain the person has certain selfrelated beliefs that are value laden (Campbell et al., 1976; Burke and
Tully, 1977; Griffin et al., 1981; Scott and Stumpf, 1984).
Postulate 1: People have beliefs about themselves that tend to be grouped (in
their own minds) in life domains such as health, job, family, community, standard
of living, among others. Furthermore, these self-beliefs are value laden.

One of the life domains that we will focus on pertains to standard


of living (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979; Kleine and Kernan, 1991;
Kleine et al., 1992, 1993; McCracken, 1988; Morgan, 1993). We will
refer to this life domain as the material life domain. We define the
material life domain as the psychological space that groups valueladen beliefs related to standard of living. These beliefs are related
to possession of material goods, wealth, and income.

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From marketing, Day (1978, 1987) and Leelakulthanit et al.


(1991) conceptualized the consumer life domain in terms of two
dimensions: the acquisition and possession of material goods. Acquisition of material goods refers to the domain of objects, persons and
events related to the purchase of material goods. Examples include
the assortment of goods in local stores, quality of goods available
in local stores, price charged in local stores, attractiveness of local
stores, courtesy and helpfulness of store personnel, after-purchase
service provided by stores, warranty policies of stores, etc. The
second dimension of the consumer life domain is the possession
of material goods. Possession of goods refers to the collection of
objects that have monetary value (e.g., house/apartment, furniture,
car/truck, clothing/accessories, and savings, etc.). For the purpose of
explaining the relationship between materialism and quality of life,
the reader should note that our interest lies partly in the possession
of material goods (both tangible and intangible), not the acquisition
of them.
Postulate 2: People have value-laden beliefs about their standard of living in terms
of material possessions, wealth, and income that tend to be grouped together in a
life domain the material life domain.

Spillover Between Satisfaction with Standard of Living and


Satisfaction in Other Life Domains and Overall Life Satisfaction
In the literature of quality of life (Campbell et al., 1976; Diener,
1984; Scott and Stumpf, 1984), the concept of life satisfaction is
considered to be a well-accepted social indicator of quality of life.
A number of quality-of-life studies have shown that life satisfaction
can be explained and predicted from the various satisfactions one
experiences from the different life domains (Campbell et al., 1976).
For example, people may feel satisfied with life as a direct function of
their satisfaction with their health, job, family, friends, community,
standard of living, etc. Note that satisfaction with standard of living
is only one source of satisfaction with overall life.
To fully explain the relationship between satisfaction with standard of living and overall satisfaction with life, we need to understand
the concepts of vertical and horizontal spillover. Spillover between
satisfaction with standard of living and overall life satisfaction can
be conceptualized using the hierarchy model shown in Figure 1

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Figure 1.

(e.g., Meadow, 1988). The model is suggested by research in consumer satisfaction (e.g., Aiello et al., 1977) and life satisfaction
(e.g., Andrews and Withey, 1976; Campbell et al., 1976), as well
as inferred from social gerontological research (e.g., Neugarten et
al., 1961). The basic premise is that life satisfaction is functionally
related to satisfaction with all of lifes domains and subdomains. The
figure shows that life satisfaction is influenced by lower levels of
life concerns. This argument is supported by Andrews and Witheys
(1976) model, namely that life satisfaction occurs at various levels
of specificity. That is, life satisfaction is influenced by evaluations of
individual life concerns. Thus, the greater the satisfaction with such
concerns as personal health, work, family, and leisure, the greater
the satisfaction with life in general.
Specifically, the hierarchy model postulates that overall life
satisfaction is determined by satisfaction with major life domains.

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The affect within a life domain spills over vertically to the most
superordinate domain (life in general), thus determining life satisfaction. Most multiattribute attitude models use the same logic in
predicting and explaining attitude. For example, most marketing
researchers are familiar with brand attitude formulations (e.g.,
Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). That is, a consumers attitude toward a
product, such as a car, is a direct function of consumers evaluations
of the various attributes of the car (moderated by the belief strength
associated with each attribute). Satisfaction researchers have used
the same logic to conceptualize the determinants of consumer satisfaction (e.g., Aiello et al., 1977). That is, evaluation of each attribute
is viewed as satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction if conceptualized to be determined by satisfaction with each life domain (job,
family, personal health, leisure, standard of living, and so forth).
Satisfaction with a given life domain is determined by satisfaction with the life conditions/concerns making up that domain.
For example, it can be postulated that satisfaction with standard of
living is determined by satisfaction with the monetary value of ones
house, furnishings, jewelry, accessories, and other material possessions. Another dimension of standard of living is income, savings,
and investments. A persons evaluation of these standard-of-living
dimensions can be viewed as satisfaction/dissatisfaction with life
conditions or concerns within the material life domain.
The extent to which satisfaction within a subdomain affects satisfaction of a superordinate domain in the hierarchy has been referred
to in the quality-of-life literature as the vertical spillover (e.g., Sirgy
et al., 1994). It should be noted that spillover can be either bottomup or top-down in vertical spillover. Satisfaction from a subordinate
domain affecting satisfaction in a superordinate domain is referred
to as bottom-up vertical spillover. This is the situation we described
in relation to satisfaction with material possessions and life overall. However, that is not to say that a top-down vertical spillover
cannot occur. It can happen, as empirically demonstrated in relation
to other life domains (see Diener, 1984 for a literature review). In
other words, life satisfaction may affect how people evaluate their
standard of living. Those who are satisfied with life may have a
disposition to evaluate their standard of living more positively than
others. Conversely, those who are satisfied with life at large may

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be more disposed to negatively evaluate their income, wealth, and


material possessions.
Many studies in the quality-of-life discipline have empirically
demonstrated the vertical spillover effect between satisfaction with
specific life domains and overall life (Diener, 1984). With respect
to the vertical spillover between satisfaction with standard of living
and overall life, Dawson and Bamossy (1991) have argued that life
satisfaction often plummets for people whose homes are destroyed
by natural disasters. Leelakulthanit et al. (1991) conducted a study
using a consumer population in Thailand that demonstrated this
effect. Specifically, they examined the relationship between satisfaction with ones own acquisition and possession of material goods
and overall life satisfaction. The study results provided support for
a positive relationship, especially for older and low income people. Furthermore, Veenhoven (1991) has examined much of the evidence between income and subjective well-being and concluded that
income (and financial well being) correlates highly and positively
with subjective well-being.
To better appreciate the concept of vertical spillover, let us contrast it with horizontal spillover. Horizontal spillover refers to the
influence of affect in one life domain over another. Here, we are not
referring to the spillover from a subordinate domain to a superordinate domain (or vice versa); instead, we are focusing on the spillover
between life domains that are on the same hierarchical plane in the
overall hierarchy of life domains and concerns. For example, we may
address the spillover between the material domains and the family
domain, between the material domain and the job domain, and so
on. Although we acknowledge the effects of horizontal spillover
between the material life domain and other domains, the theory proposed in this paper does not deal with horizontal effects, only vertical
spillover.
Postulate 3: Satisfaction with standard of living (income, wealth, and material
possessions) may vertically spill over and thus influence overall satisfaction with
life.

Satisfaction with Standard of Living


Personality psychologists have long asserted that people have an
image of themselves in relation to certain life domains, namely an

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actual self-image. For example, in the context of the material life


domain, a person may see himself as poor. In contrast to the actual
self, people have a desired image of what they want to become or
what they aspire to be. This is known as the ideal self-image. In the
context of the material world, a person may want to become rich.
The concepts of actual and ideal self are well known to personality
psychologists as reflected by the huge literature on self-concept and
self-esteem. Psychologists have traditionally defined the self-esteem
motive as the motivational tendency to change ones perception of
the self (actual self ) toward ones aspired images or standards one
has for oneself (ideal self ) (e.g., Cohen, 1959; Coopersmith, 1967;
Rogers and Dymond, 1954; Rosenberg, 1979; Sirgy, 1986).
People engage in self-evaluations within all life domains. That
is, they evaluate themselves in a specific context of a life domain.
For example, people may evaluate their actual job achievements todate against their ideal image of where they want to achieve. Thus,
self-evaluation can be viewed as a comparison process in which the
actual self is compared to the ideal self within a given life domain
(Sirgy, 1986). The actual self-image is evaluated in relation to the
ideal self-image. Positive self-evaluations increase self-esteem and
satisfaction (e.g., Campbell et al., 1976; Gecas, 1982; James, 1890;
Master et al., 1977; Scott and Stumpf, 1984).
One can easily argue that people do evaluate themselves within
the material life domain. They do so by comparing their actual selfimage with their ideal self-image. Positive self-evaluations in the
material life domain result in satisfaction with standard of living,
while negative self-evaluations result in dissatisfaction (e.g., Sirgy,
1982; Solomon, 1983).
Postulate 4: People evaluate themselves within the material life domain. Positive
self-evaluations (low discrepancy between the actual and ideal self-image) result
in satisfaction with standard of living (income, wealth, and material possessions).
Conversely, negative self-evaluations (high discrepancy between actual and ideal
self-image) result in dissatisfaction.

Expectancy confirmation/disconfirmation and satisfaction with standard of living. So far we have argued that positive self-evaluations
involve a comparison between ones perception of his or her standard
of living against ones ideal standard of living. Negative discrepancies from the ideal may cause people to feel dissatisfied with their

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standard of living, and the greater the negative discrepancies the


greater the dissatisfaction. Conversely, people are likely to be most
satisfied with their standard of living, given little or no discrepancy
between actual and ideal self-images of their standard of living. Positive discrepancies are also possible, and these are likely to generate
the strongest feeling of satisfaction.
To further understand the relationship between self-evaluations of
standard of living and satisfaction, we need to make reference to the
rich literature of consumer satisfaction. One of the dominant theories
in consumer satisfaction is expectancy confirmation/disconfirmation
(e.g., Cadotte et al., 1987; Oliver, 1980). Expectancy confirmation/disconfirmation theory posits that satisfaction with a product
or service is a direct function of expectancy confirmation or disconfirmation. That is, positive disconfirmations are likely to generate
high levels of satisfaction, followed by expectancy confirmations,
with negative disconfirmations generating the lowest levels. Figure 2
shows this relationship in a graphical form.
One can use expectancy confirmation/disconfirmation theory to
explain satisfaction with standard of living. That is, people who perceive their actual standard of living consistent with their aspirations,
they may feel moderately satisfied. Those who perceive their state
of material possessions as better than expected, they may feel highly
satisfied. And last but not least, those who perceive their standard of
living as far short from their aspired goal, they may feel dissatisfied
with their condition.
Postulate 5: Positive disconfirmations of expectations related to income, wealth,
and material possessions (i.e., standard of living) result in high satisfaction.
Confirmation of expectations related to standard of living result in some degree of
satisfaction. Negative disconfirmation of expectations related to standard of living
result in dissatisfaction. This is because positive disconfirmations involve positive self-evaluations of income, wealth, and material possessions. These positive
self-evaluations boost self-esteem. In contrast, negative disconfirmations involve
negative self-evaluations that adversely affect self-esteem.

Goal setting in relation to standard of living. One can view standardof-living expectations as set goals. The attainment of these goals
may cause satisfaction, and the lack of their attainment may cause
dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction resulting from a discrepancy between
actual and ideal self-images of standard of living may not be as

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Figure 2.

intense as a similar discrepancy involving a set goal. Thus, the


question arises: How are goals related to standard of living set? It
is theorized that standard-of-living goals are set as a direct function
of different expectations or standards of comparisons used in the
evaluation of ones income, wealth, and material possessions.
In the quality-of-life literature, Sirgy and colleagues (Meadow
et al., 1992; Sirgy et al., 1995) argued that evaluations of ones
overall life may be made in relation to different sources and forms of
standards of comparison. A source of standard specifies the principal
source of information in which the standard is based. For example,
people evaluate their life in relation to friends, relatives, associates,
others of similar position, and so on.

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In contrast, the form of standard specifies the kind of desired state


that people evaluate themselves against. For example, people evaluate their life against life ideal goals, or perhaps against their conception of what they deserve from life. Perhaps the self-evaluation may
be based on what they feel they could have accomplished realizing
his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. Sirgy and colleagues
developed the Congruity Life Satisfaction measure using different
sources and form of standards of comparisons and conducted several
studies to demonstrate the validity of the measure. Furthermore,
Michalos (1985) advanced the notion that life satisfaction may be
due to a comparison of ones lot with a number of standards. These
may involve comparisons with ones past, social comparisons, and
comparisons with ones needs. His ideas have become to be known
as multiple discrepancy theory in the quality-of-life literature.
The argument that is developed here is that evaluation of ones
standard of living involves an evaluation of one actual state of
income, wealth, and material possessions against a set goal. The
setting of this goal is influenced by different affective- and cognitivebased expectations or standards of comparisons (see Figure 3).
Affective-based expectations of standard of living. An affectivebased expectation of standard of living is a standard of comparison employed in the evaluation of ones standard of living that is
value-laden. When people use affective-based expectations in evaluating their standard of living, they experience intense emotions,
i.e., positive feelings of elation, joy, pride, intense satisfaction, sense
of achievement or accomplishment; or negative feelings of anger,
shame, inequity, injustice, sadness, disgust, envy, greed, possessiveness, or nongenerosity. There are at least three affective-based possessions expectations that people use in evaluating their standard of
living. These are:

 ideal image of standard of living (desired aspirations of income,


wealth, and material possessions uninhibited by realism),
 deserved standard of living (right to income, wealth, and material
possessions), and
 minimum need of a standard of living (or minimum tolerable
level of income, wealth, and material possessions).

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Figure 3.

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People are said to have ideal images of self, images that reflect
the most positive image that people strive toward, but attainment
of the ideal may never be realized. People may think that amassing
possessions reflective of wealth and affluence may be ideal. That the
ideal may not be realistic. The idea is that people may have ideal
goals that guide their actions even though they may not expect that
they will ever achieve these goals. Such ideal expectations of income,
wealth, and material possessions influence the goal of standard of
living that people set for themselves the goal of standard of living
they expect to achieve in life.
Ones view of deserved standard of living can result in different
levels of satisfaction. A person who is raised in affluence and end
up with an insignificant inheritance (with little income, wealth, and
material possessions) may feel cheated he may feel that he deserves
to have wealth and material possessions and that is his birth right.
Another person may feel that he does not deserve to have much in
terms of income, wealth, and material possessions, perhaps because
he has not acted responsibly for a long time. He may have a guilty
conscience that makes him feel that he does not deserve worldly
possessions.
Evaluation of ones material possessions may also be based
on minimum needs or tolerable expectations. Consider a woman
married into an affluent family. She becomes accustomed to a
lavish lifestyle. Suppose that the marriage deteriorates and she gets
divorced. Her ex-husband gives her a meager alimony. That alimony
is likely to be evaluated against a minimum tolerable standard what
she can or cannot accept as minimum, i.e., she cannot tolerate anything less. Given that people perceive that their actual standard of
living is below what they perceive to be the minimum that anyone
in their position can tolerate, they may feel extremely dissatisfied.
In other words, negative evaluations involving minimum tolerable
standards may cause a great deal of dissatisfaction. Consider the following studies by Kapteyn and his colleagues (Kapteyn et al., 1980;
Kapteyn and Wansbeek, 1982) conducted in the field of economic
psychology. The basic finding is that people with higher levels of
income reported that they need more income to meet their minimum
needs or their minimum tolerable expectations.

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Postulate 6: Satisfaction/dissatisfaction with standard of living is the direct result


of self-evaluations of ones income, wealth, and material possessions involving
set goals. These set goals are influenced by affective-based expectations such as
ones ideal and deserved standard of living, and expectations based on minimum
resource needs. That is, people make judgments about their standard of living
based on affective standards. These judgments, in turn, help set the goal of standard
of living that a person strives to achieve in life.

Cognitive-Based Expectations of Standard of Living. Cognitivebased expectations of standard of living are standards of comparison employed in the evaluation of ones income, wealth, and
material possessions. These self-evaluations generate cognitive elaboration (or involve some degree of thought or analytic thinking).
Cognitive-based expectations are less likely to be value laden compared to affective-based expectations. Cognitive-based standard-ofliving expectations involve cognitions that are not easily accessible
compared to affective-based expectations. Cognitive-based expectations are formed and changed as a direct function of analytic thinking
or rationalizing. When people use cognitive-based expectations in
evaluating their standard of living, the resultant feelings are not
likely to be intense compared to resultant feelings from the use of
affective-based expectations. There are at least three cognitive-based
expectations of standard of living that we can identify. These are:

 past standard of living (or what one had owned in the past, what
one had made in terms of income),
 predicted standard of living (as predicted by self, parents, relatives, friends, etc.), and
 perceived ability to achieve in life a certain standard of living.
In relation to self-evaluations using past income, wealth, and
material possessions, Kapteyn and colleagues (Kapteyn et al., 1980;
Kapteyn and Wansbeek, 1982) have shown that ones utility gained
from income depends on ones past income. That is, people tend to
evaluate the relative goodness of their income by seeing how far
they have come along, income-wise.
People make evaluations about their standard of living based on
predictive expectations. Here, people may have certain expectations
regarding what they may have predicted to be their future standard
of living. Consider the following example, a person who was raised
in an upper-middle class family. He was raised with the expectations

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that he will go to college and become a professional and maintain


an upper-middle class lifestyle. But then suppose he drops out of
college and ends up working in a blue-collar job and marrying into a
blue-collar family with no wealth or material possessions to speak of.
In this case, this person may evaluate his standard of living against
the expectation or prediction of his family that he will become a
professional and maintain a lifestyle and standard of living reflective
of his upper-middle class roots.
Finally, self-evaluations of standard of living are sometimes made
in relation to the peoples perception of their ability to achieve in
life a certain standard of living. That is, people evaluate themselves
and others based on their abilities to achieve, succeed in life, make
money, and amass wealth for themselves and their future generations.
A man who believes that he has the ability to make a good deal of
money but fails to do so is likely to evaluate himself negatively.
Readers who are parents may be in a better position to appreciate
this. Parents usually express approval or disapproval of their childrens task performance mostly based on the parents perception of
their childrens ability to perform the task. Parents criticize their
children when they perceive their children as having the ability to
perform at a high level but fail to do so. Part of childrens socialization is their learning of their parents expectations of themselves.
They form expectations based on their perceptions of their own ability to accomplish certain things, and these perceptions are highly
influenced by their parents expectations of them.
Postulate 7: Satisfaction/dissatisfaction with ones standard of living is the direct
result of self-evaluations of ones income, wealth, and material possessions in
relation to ones set goals. These set goals are influenced by cognitive-based
expectations. These are: ones predictive expectations of standard of living (ones
prediction of making a certain income, ones prediction of generating a certain
amount of wealth, and ones prediction of amassing certain material possessions),
ones perception of ability to achieve a certain standard of (ones ability make a
certain income, ones ability to generate a certain amount of wealth, and ones
ability to amass certain material possessions), and ones perception of past standard of living (what one used to make in income, what one used to have in terms
of wealth and material possessions). That is, people make judgments about their
standard of living based on cognitive-based expectations. These judgments, in
turn, help shape the goal of standard of living that a person strives to achieve in
life.

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Figure 4.

Materialism
As previously stated, people may have value-laden beliefs directly
related to the material life domain as they do in relation to other
life domains such as, health, job, family, friends, community, among
others. All life domains, including the material life domain, vary in
salience. That is, some life domains may be more important than
others. A number of prominent social psychologists (e.g., McCall
and Simmons, 1978; Rosenberg, 1978; Stryker, 1968) suggested that
various identities (self-concepts reflective of certain life domains) are
organized in hierarchies of salience that influence self-evaluations.
For example, in the mind of one person, the job life domain
may be the most superordinate domain. That is, his job is most
important thing in life. For another person, family may be the most
important domain; yet for another person the material domain may
be most important (see Figure 4). The concept of salience hierarchy
involving life domains is important in understanding our definition
of materialism. We define materialism as a condition in which the
material life domain is considered to be highly salient relative to other
life domains. That is, the materialistic person considers the world
of money, wealth, and material possessions to be very important
relative to other things in life.
Sociologists usually treat the concept of materialism in terms
of people placing emphasis on things such as earning money and
accumulating material possessions. For example, in a recent national

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study Easterlin and Crimmins (1988, 1991) found that, compared


with their counterparts in the 60s and 70s, young people today
place more emphasis on earning a lot of money but less emphasis on
work. That is, they are more eager to have things but less willing to
sacrifice to get them.
From marketing, the Belk and Pollays (1985) study illustrates
the conception and operationalization of materialism by marketing
scholars. The study involved content analysis of magazine advertising to capture overtime changes in materialism at the national
level. Materialism was captured in terms of ads emphasizing pleasure appeals, the comfortable life, and luxurious lifestyles. In the
80 years surveyed, they found that materialism steadily increased.
However, a conceptual view of materialism that is more consistent
with our theoretical perspective is grounded in the study of consumer involvement in marketing. Consumer researches (e.g., Bloch
and Richins, 1983; Celsi and Olson, 1988; Houston and Rothchild,
1977) made a distinction between enduring involvement and situational involvement. Enduring involvement reflects a general and
permanent concern with a product class, while situational involvement reflects concern with specific situations or events related to
specific purchases. We view materialism as enduring involvement
in the material life domain high level of cognitive and emotional
involvement with the material world. This view of materialism as
enduring involvement in the material life domain is highly consistent
with Belk (1983, 1984, 1985). He defined materialism as interest and
concern in the ownership of things and accumulation of wealth and
material possessions. Specifically, he states that Materialism reflects
the importance a consumer attaches to wordly possessions. At the
highest levels of materialism, possessions assume a central place in a
persons life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life (Belk, 1984: p. 291). Standard of
living often reflect special status (e.g., sacred) and may evoke strong
emotions for some people more than others (Rook, 1985; Belk et al.,
1991). Thus, marketers define materialism as an individual difference factor related to the belief that income, wealth, and material
possessions are important in achieving happiness in life.
Considering the preceding discussion, one can argue that a unifying concept of materialism may involve varying salience in the

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245

material life domain. That is, materialistic people can be viewed as


being more involved with money matters, wealth, and material possessions. They regard achieving and maintaining a certain standard
of living is a central life goal. They feel that activities related to the
accumulation of wealth and material possessions as very important.
They judge peoples life accomplishments based on their standard
of living, and so on (cf. Richins and Dawson, 1992).
Postulate 8: The material life domain varies in salience in relation to other life
domains such as health, job, community, family, etc. In other words, in the minds
of some people, the material life domain is highly salient, while in the minds
of others the material life domain may be low in salience. Thus, the higher the
salience of the material life domain, the stronger is the belief that money, wealth,
and material possessions are highly instrumental in achieving happiness in life.
Those people who regard standard of living as highly instrumental in achieving
happiness in life are considered materialistic.

The Moderating Effect of Materialism


The argument we would like to make here is as follows: For the
materialist, life satisfaction is likely to be most affected by satisfaction with standard of living than by satisfactions from other life
domains. That is, materialists feel satisfied with life given that they
evaluate their standard of living positively. Conversely, materialistic
people are likely to feel dissatisfied with life given that they evaluate
their income, wealth, and material possessions negatively.
How can one explain the negative correlation between materialism and life satisfaction? In the following sections, we will argue that
materialistic people may have a tendency to evaluate their standard
of living using affectively-based standards more so than nonmaterialistic people, and that these affective self-evaluations of standard of
living result in feelings of dissatisfaction more so than satisfaction.
Materialists tendency to evaluate their standard of living against
affectively-based expectations. We theorize that materialists have
heightened and value-laden expectations of standard of living more
so than nonmaterialists, and that materialists are likely to evaluate their standard of living using affective-based standards more so
than cognitive-based ones. Thus, they develop expectations about
their standard of living that are higher and more value-laden than
nonmaterialists.

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As previously described, affectively-based expectations (such as


ideal, deserved, and minimum-needs expectations) are those that are
formed as a direct result of negative emotional experiences such as
anger, fear, and envy; or positive experiences, such as joy and sensual pleasure. Specifically, an expectation such as deserved income
is usually formed as a direct result of feelings of anger, inequity, and
envy. Consider the following scenario. A factory worker who compares his wages to the salary of top management executives becomes
very resentful and angry. Perhaps because he feels that he is struggling so hard to make ends meet, and that top management executives
are being lavishly rewarded based on his own sweat and hard work.
Thus, he feels that he deserves a better income to allow him to buy
desired material things. These feelings of deserved income were
formed as a direct result of feelings of anger and resentment.
Now consider a different scenario reflecting ideal standard of
living. Suppose that the same factory worker has a favorite TV show
that he habitually watches, lets say, Dynasty. This is a show that
portrays the lives of the rich and famous. Through this show, he
begins to vicariously experience the life of certain characters on
the show by imagining himself as being as rich and self-indulgent.
Thus, he develops his ideal expectations of being affluent based on
the vicarious emotional experience from regularly watching the TV
show.
Consider the follow scenario involving minimum needs. A man
finds himself running out of money by the middle of every month.
He is paid $2 000 at the beginning of every month. He finds himself
in need of cash the latter half of every month. He experiences a great
deal of stress and feels frustrated during the latter half of every month
because of the cash problem. Based on this emotional experience he
develops monthly income expectations based directly on meeting his
financial needs the latter half of every month. He figures he needs at
least $2 500 to get by. Note that this expectation of ones minimum
financial need is based on an emotional experience.
Accordingly, we theorize that ideal, deserved, and minimum
needs expectations of income, wealth, and material possessions are
likely to cause setting of goals that are inflated and value-laden,
and that materialists are likely to use affective-based expectations
in evaluating their standard of living more so than nonmaterialists.

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247

This is because materialists tend to be more emotionally involved


in the material domain than nonmaterialists. The emotional involvement induces them to set goals related to standard of living that are
based on affective than cognitive expectations. Thus, not only the
standard-of-living goals of the materialists are characterized as unrealisticly high and value-laden, but also their realization is not likely
to produce much satisfaction. Conversely, lack of goal attainment is
likely to generate a great deal of dissatisfaction. We will elaborate on
materialists use of ideal, deserved, and minimum need expectations
shortly.
Suggestive evidence concerning the relationship between materialism and heightened standard-of-living expectations comes from
a study conducted in the area of quality of life (Duncan, 1975).
This study found that Detroit homemakers satisfaction with their
standard of living did not increase from 1955 to 1971, despite the
fact that real income increased substantially. This may be due to the
fact that these homemakers became more materialistic as reflected
in the increasing level of materialism of that period. With increasing materialism, their standard-of-living expectations also increased.
Similarly, Diener and Fujita (1996) noted that happiness levels in
the USA, France, and Japan have not changed since WW II, despite
rapid economic growth in these countries. Most importantly is that
increased income brought no greater satisfaction. They explained
this finding by arguing that standard-of-living expectations moved
upward as national income increased.
Postulate 9: Materialistic people evaluate their standard of living using affectivebased standards of ideal, deserved, and minimum needs more so than nonmaterialists. Positive disconfirmation and confirmation of these expectations generate little
satisfaction, whereas negative disconfirmation produces much dissatisfaction.

Materialists tendency to experience greater spillover of dissatisfaction with their standard of living unto overall life. We just argued that
materialistic people tend to have heightened (as well as more valueladen) expectations of their standard of living than nonmaterialists.
Because of these heightened and value-laden expectations, they tend
to evaluate their standard of living negatively. In other words, the
negative correlation between materialism and life satisfaction can
be explained by the mere fact that materialists are likely to evaluate
their standard of living more negatively than nonmaterialists, and

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M. JOSEPH SIRGY

this may be due to their high and value-laden expectations. Since


the material life domain is considered highly salient for materialists, these feelings of dissatisfaction with their standard of living
are likely to spillover to the most superordinate life domain, thus
causing life dissatisfaction.
Postulate 10: Materialistic people are likely to feel dissatisfied with their standard
of living than nonmaterialists. This may be due to the fact that they evaluate their
standard of living against affectively-based standards. Whereas nonmaterialists
are likely to evaluate their standard of living against cognitive-based standards.
Dissatisfaction with standard of living biases materialists evaluations of their
overall life, thus causing them to feel more dissatisfaction with life than nonmaterialists.

Determinants of Materialists Affectively-Based Expectations of


Standard of Living
In this section, we will make an attempt to explain the socialpsychological dynamics involved in the formation and change of
materialists ideal, deserved, and minimum need expectations.
Determinant of the materialists ideal expectations of standard of
living: Materialists tendency to engage in upward social comparisons involving remote referents. Using products to display social
status has been addressed by scholars such as Veblen (1899, 1953)
and Packard (1959). This phenomenon has come to be known as
conspicuous consumption. Scitovsky (1992) also described status
consumption as the purchase of material goods to confer status on
their owners. The underlying social psychology of both conspicuous and status consumption is social comparison (Festinger, 1954;
Kruglanski and Mayseless, 1990; Merton and Skitt, 1950). People
tend to compare themselves with significant others and evaluate
themselves accordingly. These social comparisons can be upward
or downward. An upward comparison generates a negative selfevaluation because the person judges himself as inferior to the significant other, whereas a downward comparison results in a positive
self-evaluation.
In making social comparison judgments, people may use
situationally-imposed referents or referents based on remote sources.
Situationally-imposed referents are those that are associated with
people that the person encounters on a daily basis. For example,

MATHERIALISM AND QUALITY OF LIFE

249

expectations of standard of living such as the material possessions of


friends, family, similar people at work (or at school), and neighbors
are expectations that are situationally imposed. Consider the following scenario. A factory worker compares his wages to the income
of a co-worker. He notes that the co-workers wages are significantly
higher than his. He feels dissatisfied. He goes home and as he drives
by his neighbors house down the street he notes that the neighbor
is using a riding lawn-mower. He does not have a lawn mower and
he longed for one. He feels dissatisfied because his neighbor has a
valuable material good that he doesnt have.
In contrast, social comparisons may involve referents based on
remote sources. These may be based on ones perception of the standard of living of certain people in town, in ones state (or province),
in ones country; the perception of standard of living of others who
belong to a certain country (e.g., USA), gender group, age group,
ethnic group, religious group, or social class. We refer to those
standards of social comparisons as remote because these referent groups are freely selected for social comparison purposes. That
is, there is an element of choice in the selection of these standards
of comparison. Situationally-imposed standards do not involve free
choice.
We theorize that situationally-imposed standards are likely to
involve referents having a standard of living not too discrepant from
ones own. Ones standard of living is likely to be highly consistent
with those of friends, neighbors, family members, colleagues, etc.
This is because most people are highly influenced by those social
forces around them and act to meet the expectations of significant
others. However, ones standard of living is not necessarily consistent with remote referents. Lets say, an inner-city poor person
may compare his standard of living to others who live in the affluent suburbs frequently shown in television advertising. That person
may hardly ever visit the suburbs, and therefore the social comparison standard involving people who live in the suburbs cannot be
considered situationally imposed. Those referents are, in essence,
remote.
We theorize that materialists tend to select standards of comparisons involving remote referents who have a high standard of living.
By doing so, they experience more dissatisfaction with their own

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standard of living than nonmaterialists. Not only do these upward


social comparisons lead to dissatisfaction with their standard of
living, but also these self-evaluations enhance the formation and
reinforcement of ideal expectations of standard of living, which
in turn may be directly responsible for setting unrealistically high
goals, the kind of goals that assure dissatisfaction. But why would
materialists select remote referents that are likely to cause them to
experience negative self-evaluations? This is because materialists
value the world of material possessions and therefore are likely to
select remote standards reflecting the aura of wealth and affluence.
Thus, in making upward comparisons, materialists hope of becoming
like these wealthy others. A downward comparison for materialists may make them feel superior, but can also make them think
that their standard of living may decline, which in turn in highly
dissatisfying. Another explanation of why materialists make upward
social comparisons with remote sources may involve the assimilation
effect. Pelham and Wachsmuth (1995) demonstrated that some people make upward social comparisons because those superior others
are thought as similar to them. Since materialists are more likely to
aspire to become wealthy, they may consider those remote others
similar to them and compare themselves accordingly.
Suggestive evidence in support for materialists tendency to
engage in upward social comparison include studies conducted by
Rahtz et al. (1988, 1989). Several studies were conducted examining
the relationship between television viewership and life satisfaction
among the elderly. These studies have suggested that those who
watch much television are more materialistic than those who watch
less. And those who watch more tend to compare their satisfaction
of living with a stereotypic image of the average upper-class family
typically shown in television advertisements. These upward comparisons cause elderly viewers to feel dissatisfied about their own
standard of living, which in turn spills over to life dissatisfaction (cf.
Morgan, 1984). Also, Richins (1992) has shown that materialistic
people are more likely than others to compare themselves with the
image of wealthy people as cultivated from the media. She argued
that this media image can influence materialists expectations about
the unrealistic standard of living that they can expect to obtain.

MATHERIALISM AND QUALITY OF LIFE

251

Postulate 11: Materialists ideal expectations of standard of living are mostly


determined by upward social comparisons involving remote referents. These
upward social comparisons are partly responsible for inflated and value-laden
ideal standard-of-living expectations. Materialists tend to frequently compare
themselves with others who have a higher standard of living, because their materialistic orientation induces them to focus on people of wealth and affluence.

Determinant of the materialists feelings of deserved standard of


living: Materialists tendency to experience inequity. We argue that
materialists tend to experience inequity to a greater extent than
nonmaterialists. Equity and inequity comparisons involve work and
income. Materialists compare themselves with others that seem to
have more income and worked no harder. These comparisons
generate feelings of injustice, anger, or envy.
Inequity comparisons and the resulting feelings of injustice, anger,
or envy can be explained using the principle of distributive justice
(Homans, 1961) and equity theory (Adams, 1965). The principle of
distributive justice explains perceptions of fairness. According to
Homans, the primary criterion for fairness involves the distribution
of rewards in relation to the investments. Thus, distributive justice
can be reached in a relationship between two people (A and B) when
0

A s profit
A s investments
0

s profits
= B sBinvestments
0

Thus, person A may feel that it is not fair if person B has more
material possessions than he has, given that Bs investments (or
work) is essentially equal or less than person A. Similarly, Adams
suggested that a condition of equity between participants in an interaction occurs when each persons outcomes are proportional to his
or her inputs:
0

A s outcomes
A s input
0

= B Bs outcomes
s input
0

Perceived inequity occurs when one receives outcomes that are


proportionately too small for ones inputs. This causes the person to
experience anger. We theorize that materialists are likely to experience inequity more so than nonmaterialists. They compare themselves to others and perceive others having a higher level of income,
while these others have not worked as hard. These perceptions of

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M. JOSEPH SIRGY

inequity cause materialists to feel anger, injustice, or envy. These


negative emotions may be responsible for the formation and reinforcement of deserved expectations of income. The more intense
these emotional reactions experienced from equity comparisons the
more inflated and value laden the deserved expectations are likely to
be. Suggestive evidence of the relationship between materialism and
perceptions of deserved standard of living come from Belk (1985).
Belk has long argued that materialistic people are likely to experience feelings of envy, possessiveness, and nongenerosity more than
nonmaterialists.
But then why do materialists compare themselves with those
others who have more income but work less? Perhaps because materialists regard income as important in achieving lifes goals, they
focus on people who have high income. Thus, they are more likely
to use people of high income as comparison standards than nonmaterialists.
Postulate 12: Materialists perceptions of deserved standard of living are mostly
determined by feelings of inequity involving income and work. These feelings of
inequity are partly responsible for the inflated and value-laden deserved standardof-living expectations. Materialists tend to frequently compare themselves with
others who have higher income and work less because their materialists orientation induces them to use people of high income and wealth as their referents.

Determinant of the materialists minimum needs of standard of


living: Materialists tendency to overconsume and underproduce
income to buy material goods. We argue that materialists tend to
consume material goods a lot more than they produce income to buy
the desired goods. They buy more material goods and consume these
goods at a greater rate than nonmaterialists. They are not necessarily
less productive than nonmaterialists, but they tend to produce less
income than is needed to consume what they want. So they are constantly low on cash. They experience financial problems significantly
more than nonmaterialists. Because of these problems they become
acutely aware of their minimum financial needs. Thus, they become
preoccupied with money, material possessions, and consumption,
more so than nonmaterialists.
Slater (1980) compared materialists pursuit of things as a drug
addiction. As with drugs, the materialist comes to need larger
and larger doses of consumption to remain satisfied (Rook, 1987;

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253

Schudson, 1984). Materialists tend to never become totally satisfied


with what they currently have. This is because the more material
possessions they acquire the higher their minimum needs of material possessions. In other words, their need for material possessions
is hardly ever satiated. The more they have the more they want.
Kapteyn and his colleagues (Kapteyn et al., 1980; Kapteyn and
Wansbeek, 1982) have shown that people with higher levels of
income indicated that they required more material possessions
to meet their minimum needs. It is very possible that Kapteyns
sample population was composed more of materialists than nonmaterialists. Also, studies have shown that materialism is related to
conspicuous consumption (see Mason, 1981, for a review), compulsive consumption and abuse of credit care (Faber and OGuin,
1988). Richins and Dawson (1992) found that those valuing financial security had higher mean materialism scores than those did not.
It is possible that concern for financial security stems from financial
problems.
Postulate 13: Materialists feel the need to maintain a high standard of living to be
able to meet their minimum needs of material things. This minimum need expectation is mostly determined by their proclivity to consume more material things than
they are able to generate income to buy them. This proclivity for overconsumption
is partly responsible for the inflated and value-laden expectations of standard of
living.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

We made an attempt in this paper to explain the empirical finding


that materialism and life satisfaction are negatively correlated. The
theoretical explanation posits that overall life satisfaction (quality
of life) is partly determined by satisfaction with standard of living.
Satisfaction with standard of living, in turn, is mostly determined by
evaluations of ones actual standard of living compared to ones set
goal. Ones set goal of standard of living, in turn, is mostly determined by affective-based expectations (ideal, deserved, and needbased expectations of income, wealth, and material possessions) and
cognitive-based expectations (predictive, past, and ability-based).
Affective possession expectations such as ideal, deserved, and minimum need are more likely to be unrealistically high and value laden
than cognitive expectations.

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M. JOSEPH SIRGY

Materialists are thought to experience greater dissatisfaction with


their standard of living than nonmaterialists, which in turn spills over
to overall life causing dissatisfaction with life in general. Materialists
experience dissatisfaction with standard of living because they set
material possessions goals that are inflated and value laden. These
goals are likely to be more influenced by affective-based possessions expectations (such as ideal, deserved, and need-based) than
cognitive-based ones (predictive, past, and ability-based).
Materialists ideal expectations are likely to be more influenced
by social comparisons involving standards based on remote sources
than standards that are situationally imposed. Situationally-imposed
standards of comparisons involve perceptions of income, wealth,
and material possessions of family, friends, neighbors, colleagues;
whereas standards based on remote sources involve perceptions
of material possessions of others in ones community, town, state,
country, other countries; perceptions of standard of living of similar
or dissimilar others based on gender, age, education, ethnicity, occupation, and social class. We argued that materialists have inflated
and value-laden standard-of-living expectations because their ideal
expectations of standard of living are likely to be influenced more
by social comparisons with remote referents than situationallyimposed referents. Standard-of-living evaluations involving these
ideal expectations contribute to feelings of dissatisfaction with ones
actual standard of living, which spills over to overall life causing life
dissatisfaction.
Also, materialists are likely to set their standard-of-living goals
guided by deserved expectations. These expectations are formed as
a direct result of equity comparisons with others who have more
income but work less. These equity comparisons cause materialists
to experience anger, inequity, injustice, or envy. These emotional
reactions may be responsible for establishing inflated and valueladen expectations. Standard-of-living evaluations involving these
deserved expectations contribute to feelings of dissatisfaction with
ones standard of living, which spills over to overall life causing life
dissatisfaction.
Furthermore, we theorized that materialists set their standard-ofliving goals guided by perceptions of financial need. They may have
a proclivity to consume more material goods and services than they

MATHERIALISM AND QUALITY OF LIFE

255

make enough money to pay for these goods and services. They are
overconsumers because they believe that consuming things can bring
pleasure, comfort, and happiness. Their overconsumption habits tend
to make them spend more than they can afford. Thus, they are constantly experiencing financial problems. Thus, they become overwhelming preoccupied with their finances and their financial needs.
These financial needs tend to be most responsible for establishing
standard-of-living expectations based on financial needs. Because of
their overconsumption and overspending, they tend to feel dissatisfied with what they have and feel that what they have is inadequate in
meeting their financial needs. These feelings of dissatisfaction tend
to spill over to overall life causing life dissatisfaction.
Future research should focus on testing aspects of the theory in a
programmatic manner. Also, future research may test the predictive
power of the proposed theory against alternative explanations. One
alternative explanation that may account for the negative correlation
between materialism and life satisfaction is as follows. People who
are dissatisfied with life are likely to make unfavorable comparisons
with others in relation to income, wealth, and material possessions.
This may cause dissatisfaction with ones standard of living. Dissatisfaction with standard of living is likely to increase the marginal
utility of income, wealth,. and material possessions, making the dissatisfied people materialistic in orientation (cf. Gilbert and Trower,
1990; Inglehart, 1981; Swallow and Kuiper, 1988, 1990). Another
alternative explanation is that materialism is basically reflected in
the pursuit of consumption. To pursue consumption means the loss
of interpersonal rewards and relationships. Thus, the displacement
of people to material things causes decreases in happiness (Fournier
and Richins, 1991: p. 407; Fromm, 1976).
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Department of Marketing
Pamplin College of Business
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
(Virginia Tech)
Blacksburg, VA 24061-0236
USA
sirgy@vt.edu (e-mail)