We are living in an increasingly consumerist culture. Public sector services are often being run like private companies, alongside privatisation the profit motive is more and more central to how services are being planned and delivered. For those of us working in such services one loss is that we must increasingly turn people away on cost grounds, and sometimes even cherry-pick ‘profitable’ work. In addition colleagues in nearby organisations, with whom mutual learning and the exchange of ideas was once possible,  are now competitors in a dog eat dog world, and so opportunities for helping each other in delivering the best health or other services are threatened. Another other central agenda is that of personal choice, and public servants are frequently expected to think of those we work with as customers.

While choice is laudable, there is an aspect of this which can become counterproductive. This was demonstrated in a very simple study which has just been published by Galen V. Bodenhausen. with colleagues Monika A. Bauer, James E. B. Wilkie, and Jung K. Kim, in Psychological Science [1]  In one experiment subjects were asked to imagine there was a water shortage, and this water should be shared with several other people. The putative water users were either described as consumers or as individuals. Those described as consumers were far more likely to be less trusting of the others, less helpful and responsible and less likely to work in partnership than those designated as individuals, even though the only difference was in the more consumerist language. This was also irrespective of any personality differences between the participants. It was the social cues that altered their behaviour. This is very similar to other research by Varda Liberman and Les Ross [2] who invented a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which tests loyalty against self-interest. They told one group of players that the game was called the ‘Wall Street Game, and another group that it was called ‘The Cooperation Game’. Guess what? 70% of those playing the ‘Community Game’ cooperated, as opposed to only 33% of those playing the ‘Wall Street Game’, even though there was no difference in the games other than the name. There are important lessons here about how the kind of messages we give people about the values behind activities will enhance or diminish cooperative and helpful behaviour.

Bodenhausen’s study also found that by putting people into a materialistic mindset, such as by exposing them to images of luxury goods and status symbols, they showed more negative affect and social disengagement, a higher likelihood of rating themselves as depressed or anxious., less interest in social activities and more in solitary pursuits. This confirms a whole tranche of studies that have been undertaken over the years by Tim Kasser and others that materialistic values and cultures increase self-interest, worsen mental health outcomes and give rise to a much more superficial way of relating to others, one based on appearance and image more than substance. Kasser  [3] also found in several international studies that the more consumerist and materialistic the culture the more unhappiness and mental health problems we see, but also that the converse was true, that people who had more mental health problems were more likely to resort to consumerist strategies and aspirations, believing that being better looking or having high status objects and money would make them happy. The message of kasser’s studies, and others such as the Cohens [4] who have also differentiated people who pursue intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic values, is that consumerism weakens altruism, helpfulness and wellbeing while increasing all manner of mental health issues.

[1]           M. A. Bauer, J. E. B. Wilkie, J. K. Kim, and G. V. Bodenhausen, ‘Cuing Consumerism Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being’, Psychological Science, Mar. 2012.

[2]           V. Liberman, S. M. Samuels, and L. Ross, ‘The Name of the Game: Predictive Power of Reputations Versus Situational Labels in Determining Prisoner’s Dilemma Game Moves’, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, vol. 30, no. 9, pp. 1175–1185, Jan. 2004.

[3]           T. Kasser, The high price of materialism. The MIT Press, 2003.

[4]           P. Cohen and J. Cohen, Life values and adolescent mental health. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996.