Being human together. Showing up for what matters.

At the recent Australia/New Zealand Association of Contextual Behaviour Science conference, I was enthralled by guest speaker  Dr Tim Kasser (Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois), who spoke on the contradiction of what society tells us will improve well-being, and what actually does.  I’m cut from the same cloth as Dr Kasser when it comes to our shared belief that what psychology has to offer on this topic is far too important to wait for people to stumble across it once they get brave enough, and/or things get tough enough for them to come through our doors one-by-one. As a scientific community, we know this stuff NOW – why should anyone else have to wait?  In that vein, today I share a brief summary of some of Dr Kasser’s presentation, including his own research.

After commenting that the current message our society gives us about well-being is that it can be purchased – that “life is meaningful and people are successful to the extent they have money, possessions, and the right image;” Dr Kasser went on to share what the science actually shows.

He presented the work of Grouzet et al (2005) and Kasser & Ryan (1996) on the Aspirations Index, which examined the goals that people endorsed as being important.  Broadly, seven categories of aspirations fell into two over-arching themes; which were labeled Extrinsic (eg “I will have enough money to buy everything I want”) and Intrinsic (eg “I will help the world become a better place”) – and using funky science and a circumplex model they found that essentially, it is difficult to pursue both Extrinsic (give me money!) and Intrinsic (save the world!) goals at the same time.

A bunch of people then examined how having goals that were Extrinsic (popularity; image; financial success) or Intrinsic (affiliation; self-acceptance; community) impacted on well-being.  A meta-analysis of these studies, conducted by Dittmar, Bond, Hurst & Kasser (in press, JPSP) found that high endorsement on Extrinsic goals was associated with higher rates of:

  • Compulsive buying
  • Health risk behaviours
  • Negative self image
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Negative affect

And lower rates of:

  • Positive self image
  • Positive affect
  • Well-being
  • Physical health
  • Life satisfaction

Dr Kasser summarised this as “materialistic values lead to choices and experiences that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs” (2002).

Here’s what else they found: high levels of Autonomy (choosing what one does of one’s own accord), Relatedness (feeling connected to and loved by other people) and Competence are all associated with high levels of well being – and Materialism decreases people’s sense of all three of these (Dittmar et al; in press).

But you want MORE ;-)?

Kashdan and Breen (2007) found in their study “people with stronger materialistic values reported more negative emotions and less relatedness, autonomy, competence, gratitude, and meaning in life…experiential avoidance fully mediated all associations between materialistic values and each dimension of well-being.”

Image courtesy of Naypong at
Image courtesy of Naypong at

So here’s the quick summary: the more materialistic we are, the more unhappy we are. So what does this have to do with our kids watching TV?  Well, as Dr Kasser explained, it’s all to do with their exposure to advertising.

  • Children in schools with Channel One (an initiative that gave free televisions to schools in low SES areas in America, on the condition that they watch a news bulletin that contained an advertisement segment) were found to have a stronger consumer orientation (Brand & Greenberg, 1994)
  • Children who watch more TV have higher consumer values, lower well-being, and worse environmental attitudes (Good, 2007; Nairn, Ormrod, & Bottomley, 2007)
  • As the percentage of GDP/capita from advertising increased in the US from 1976-2007, so too did the materialism of 18 year-olds (Twenge & Kasser, 2013)

So my take-away from Dr Kasser essentially was: the more materialistic my kids are, the poorer their well-being – and the more they are exposed to advertising, the more materialistic they will be.

Dr Kasser had three recommendations for action:

  • Support policies to remove ads from schools and public places
  • Legislate change so that advertising can no longer be written off as a tax-deduction
  • End advertising to children.  Brazil and Scandinavian countries have done this already – there’s precedent!

As parents, here’s what we can put into place right now:

  • Restrict TV time, and be judicious about what our children are watching.  I’m so grateful we still have the ABC!  See here for Australian guidelines on screen time for children.  There is no evidence of any educational benefit of screen time for children under the age of 5.
  • Watch for advertising sneaking into schools and P&C events – advocate for its removal.
  • Talk to your children about advertising – that the purpose of ads is to sell products; and they do not always tell the truth (watch Gruen or The Checkout to unpack the spin).  This strategy was demonstrated to reduce materialism in Dutch children (Buijzen and Valkenburg, 2005).
  • Talk with your children about upcoming purchases and things that are influencing your decision (eg “We are looking at buying a car because…, and these are the considerations we’re thinking about….”), as well as your own decision-costs.  Recently Hiccup and Toothless were asking me to buy decorations for Halloween.  After I had explained that for us, purchasing Halloween decorations would be us spending more money on things we don’t need, I then talked with them about my desire to use our limited resources to spend money on things that did matter to us – and as a family we decided instead to give money to Commit and Act to support their work on preventing the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone.
  • Talk with your children about your own values – what matters to you, who you want to be in this world – what’s worthy of YOUR time, attention – and money.
  • Encourage family members to express gratitude, which has been linked with reducing materialism (Lambert et al, 2009)

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  1. Thanks for that useful and thought-provoking summary, Tiffany.
    I particularly love your pro-active (‘do something you can’) recommendations. Dr Kasser’s ideas, altho having some logical merit, are about trying to prevent something happening that is already rolling along strongly in society (good luck with that), but your ideas: – talk about it with your kids and share your personal values so they can understand and manage the reality they are exposed to, makes much more practical, useful sense! I like this post.

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