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FEATURE

What'$ behind American con$umeri$m?

Novotney, A. (2008). What's behind American consumerism. American Psychological


Association, 39(7), 40-40.

What'sbehindAmericanconsumerism?
AsAmericansincreasinglyspendmorethantheyearn,psychologicalresearchisprovidingcluesastowhy.
ByAmyNovotney
MonitorStaff
July/August2008,Vol39,No.7
Printversion:page40

Onebrightspotinthemidstofthecountry'seconomicdownturnmaybealongoverduefocusonreininginourspending.
Since1982,Americans'personalsavingsratehasdroppedfrom11percenttobelowzero,accordingtotheU.S.
DepartmentofCommerce,andpersonalbankruptcy
filingshavereachedrecordhighs.Asthedebtloadhasrisen,psychologistshaveincreasinglybeencalledontoexplain
whyAmericansoverspend.Inthelastsixmonthsalone,APA'sMediaReferralServicefieldedmorethan60requestsfrom
mediaorganizationslookingtotalktoapsychologistaboutmoneymorethananyothersubjectduringthesametime.
Researcherssaythatnewwaysofadvertising,pairedwithculturalshiftstowardconsumerism,seemtobedrivingthetrend.
"Anytimetheurgestrikes,wenowhavethecapabilitytoactonitimpulsively,andthatcreatesamuchgreaterchallengefor
usthanwaseverthecasebefore,"sayspsychologistStuartVyse,PhD,authorof"GoingBroke:WhyAmericansCan'tHold
OnToTheirMoney"(OxfordUniversityPress,2008)."It'sonlynaturalthatwearehavingtroublewithdebt."
Thealmightyimpulse
Oneculpritmaybeunendingdemandonourselfcontrol,saysFloridaStateUniversitysocialpsychologistRoyBaumeister,
PhD.Likeamusclethattiresaftertoomuchuse,takingontoomanywillpowertaxingtasksdepletesourresources,andwe
havetroublesucceedingatanyofthem,accordingtoresearchbyBaumeisterintheJournalofConsumerResearch(Vol.
28,No.4).
"Whentherearetoomanyothernewdemandsonyourtimewhenyou'reunderstress,meetingdeadlinesatwork,dealing
withadifficultrelationshipyou'regoingtobeatriskforspendingmore,"hesays.
Creditcardsfurtherundermineourwillpower,saysLosAngelesclinicalpsychologistandwealthconsultantJames
Gottfurcht,PhD.Beforethederegulationofcreditcardinterestratesin1978,onlywealthierconsumersqualifiedforacredit
card.Nowthecreditcardindustrybeginssolicitingconsumersinhighschool,offeringcreditoftenatveryhighinterestrates
withoutrequiringfinancialqualificationsorprovidingguidanceinhowthecardsshouldbeused,saysGottfurcht,coauthor
of"BlueprintforSuccess"(InsightPublishing,2008).
"They'reconditioningpeopleintobuildingdebtataveryyoung,vulnerableage,"hesays.
Tomakemattersworse,psychologicalresearchshowsthatcreditcardsconditionustogiveintoimpulses.AJournalof
ConsumerResearch(Vol.13,No.3)studybyPurdueUniversitypsychologistRichardA.Feinberg,PhD,showsthatsimply
alertingconsumerstothefactthatanestablishmentacceptscreditcardsbydisplayingaVisaorMasterCardinsigniainthe
storewindowmakesthemmorelikelytomakeapurchase.Thefindingsweretrueeveniftheconsumerdidnotusea
creditcard,Feinbergnotes.
Societysays:Spend!
Ofcourse,thisisnoaccident.Advertisersspendmillionsresearchinghowtoinduceustopurchase,saysVyse,a
ConnecticutCollegepsychologyprofessor.Theirfindingsoftenleadtoincreasinglyinnovative,andsometimesintrusive,
waystomarkettheirproducts,headds.
Beforethe1970s,henotes,ourhomeswereplacesofquietandrefuge,wherewecouldnotbeseparatedfromourmoney.
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What'$ behind American con$umeri$m?

"Youwerenotacommercialanimalathome,"saysVyse.
Thatchangedin1976withtheadventofL.L.Bean'smailordercatalogthatenabledconsumerstocalltollfreetoplace
theirorders,andlaterwithTV'shomeshoppingnetworks.Nowadays,theInternetallowspeopletoeasilyspendawaytheir
paycheckathome,ontheroad,orevenwhilethey'reatworkearningmoney.
Andwhileadvertisementsusedtoappearexclusivelyinmagazinesandnewspapers,todaytheyareeverywhere:on
bathroomstalldoors,airplanetraytablesandevenlaseretchedontheshellsofeggs.
"There'sverylittlespacethatyoureyecanfallonthatdoesn'thavesomekindofbrandedimageonit,"Vysesays.
Butperhapsadvertising'smostworrisomeeffectisthatitworks,andallthispurchasingcouldbedrivingusintodebtand
unhappiness.FinancialdifficultiesaretheleadingcauseofmaritalproblemsamongAmericanstoday,anda2001Social
ScienceandMedicinestudy(Vol.53,No.4)suggeststhatworryaboutdebtcanleadtostressanddepression.Concern
aboutmoneyevenextendstotheworkplaceandcanleadtoabsenteeism,loweredproductivityandanincreaseinstress
relatedillnessesamongworkers,accordingtoa2006reportbytheNewAmericaFoundation,aWashington,D.C.based
nonprofitpublicpolicyinstitute.
Psychologistshaveanimportantroletoplayinhelpingpeoplemakewisefinancialdecisions,andresistadvertisers'siren's
song,Vysesays.
"Peoplemayhavemorephysicalobjectsandpossessionsnowthantheyhadinpreviousgenerations,butmanyofthem
aredeeplyunhappy,"hesays."Psychologistscanbepartofamovementtopushbacksomeoftheinfluencesof
commercialisminourlives."

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