Consumerism, Values, and What Really Matters: An Interview with Tim Kasser

by Lisa Mastny   |   July 29, 2011


New Dream talked with Tim Kasser, a recent addition to our Board of Directors, about his research on consumerism and people’s values, and how he tries to resist consumer pressures in his own life and family. Kasser is professor and chair of Psychology at Knox College in Illinois and the author of numerous books and articles on materialism, values, and goals.

How did you come to study issues of consumerism and values? Was there a defining moment that inspired you to investigate this topic so deeply for so many years?

When I was working on my Ph.D. in psychology in the early 1990s, I became interested in how people construct their lives. That led me to study people’s goals and what they were aspiring to create out of their lives. One day, I was running some statistics and getting ready to examine how personal well-being relates to prioritizing goals for money and possessions relative to other kinds of goals. I remember sitting in front of the computer thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if people who cared more about goals for money and possessions were less happy?”

I ran the analyses and that’s what I found. So I brought the result to my mentor, Rich Ryan, and he encouraged me to study it more. We were able to replicate the finding a couple of more times, and we soon published one of the very first research papers documenting this effect. The finding made a lot of sense to me in the context of the psychological theories I was learning about and from my observations of the culture in which we live, so I’ve continued to study this topic for almost 20 years now. 

A lot of your research has focused on distinguishing between two types of goals: “extrinsic,” or materialistic, goals, and “intrinsic” goals. Can you explain the difference and describe how these shape people’s behaviors (as consumers or otherwise)?

Extrinsic goals include aims such as trying to make a lot of money, to have a lot of nice possessions, to have the “right” image, and to be popular and of high status. We call these goals “extrinsic” because they are focused on external rewards and other people’s opinions. In contrast, intrinsic goals include aims such as personal growth, accepting one’s self, having close relationships with family and friends, and contributing to the community. We call these goals “intrinsic” because they are likely to satisfy inherent psychological needs that psychological theories suggest all people have. 

What we’ve found over the years is that these goals exist along a dimension—all of us have both kinds of goals, but people vary in how much they are focused on one set or the other. We’ve also found in dozens of studies that the more that people prioritize the intrinsic goals relative to the extrinsic goals, the more they are happy and satisfied with their lives, the more they feel alive and vital, and the more they experience pleasant emotions during their day-to-day lives. People who prioritize intrinsic goals are also less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, to experience unpleasant emotions and physical symptoms in their day-to-day lives, and to use drugs and alcohol. Other studies have also shown that a focus on intrinsic relative to extrinsic goals promotes more helpful, pro-social, cooperative behaviors and more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviors.

In essence, the research shows that the goals encouraged by consumer culture, which are primarily extrinsic, tend to diminish the quality of our lives, our society, and our Earth, whereas intrinsic goals promote greater health and well-being, more social justice, and greater sustainability. 

You’ve also done research on environmental campaigning, including “what works” and what doesn’t. What, in your view, is missing from environmental campaigns, and what could be done to more effectively motivate people to effect change?

For the last two or three years I’ve been working with the World Wildlife Fund in the U.K. on these issues. What I’ve learned is that a great number of environmental organizations have been convinced by marketing agencies that the best hope they have for meeting environmental challenges is to sell people green products, to try to make being sustainable seem fashionable, to make the “business case for sustainability,” and to promote “green economic growth.” 

What Tom Crompton (at WWF-UK) and I have been doing is marshalling the psychological evidence that calls this strategy into question. The fundamental problem is that such strategies end up activating and encouraging the kinds of extrinsic values that the research shows are associated with worse environmental attitudes and behaviors. We don’t doubt that people might be momentarily motivated to buy something green for these extrinsic reasons, but in terms of promoting long-term lifestyle change and the kinds of social movements that are going to be needed to bring us policies for sustainability, this strategy seems, at best, misguided and, at worst, fundamentally at odds with our overall goal. 

We are more convinced by the data showing that everyone has intrinsic values and that it is more fruitful to activate and encourage these values. Certainly the research shows that people behave and talk in more environmentally positive ways when they have been asked to think about their intrinsic values or when environmental behaviors are framed as relevant to intrinsic goals. 

One of the courses you teach at Knox College is titled “Alternatives to Consumerism”? What are the main alternatives you highlight, and what is the “take-home message” you are hoping to bring to your students?

This course is taken mostly by environmental studies and economics students, and many of them are feeling pretty hopeless about the state of the world. To me, the main point of the class is to give them hope that there are actually very feasible alternatives that have already been tested out in some places and that seem to work well. 

We talk about four main kinds of alternatives. We begin with personal lifestyle changes, discussing things like Voluntary Simplicity and avoiding debt. Then we talk about the media, and discuss ways that groups have fought back against commercialization, including “adbusting”; one of the really fun assignments is that students do a culture jam by designing and then hanging up “anti-ads” around campus. Next we talk about alternative economic models, so things like local currencies, leisure vs. money, and ways to dethrone corporate power. We end with social alternatives like homesteading, communal living, and alternative food systems. 

My sense is that by the end of the class, most students really do see that there are alternatives and have a sense of how we could personally and collectively bring them about. 

Do you have hope that the “next generation” of consumers will have a better understanding of the challenges associated with excess materialism and consumerism? What are the bright spots that you’ve encountered among your students?

I do have hope, but it is measured. We have to remember that this next generation has been subjected to the best-funded, best-researched societal experiment ever, with billions and billions of dollars spent to convince them that organizing their lives around consumerism and money and technology is their best hope of a happy life. Many have bought into this message. At the same time, this coming generation is fairly savvy about how they are being manipulated (although I think they only see the tip of the iceberg) and are on the whole pretty aware of the problems we face environmentally and socially.  

In my “Alternatives to Consumerism” class I ask my students to write a “consumerography,” or a biography of their lives as consumers. It is really remarkable how many of them see how empty that lifestyle is and how much they really want to figure out a different pattern of life for themselves and their kids one day. I have hope that they can, given how much energy, caring, and intelligence they show. I also have hope because most of them say that what they care about most are the intrinsic values—they just need help figuring out how to set up their lives and businesses and societies around those values. 

What kinds of policy changes would you like to see in the U.S. to help address some of the challenges with consumerism you’ve identified?

There are dozens. But I’ll restrain myself and only list five. First, I would like to see the U.S. get more in line with the rest of the world and give parents six-months paid leave after the birth of a child. Second, I’d like us to follow the lead of the U.K.’s “right to roam” and the Scandinavian nations’ “Allemansratten,” so that people have the right to hike in countryside that is privately owned. Third, I would like to follow other countries that have decided not to allow any marketing to be aimed at children until they are 13 years old. Fourth, I would help to balance the budget by repealing the current laws that allow businesses to deduct their marketing- and advertising-related expenses from their taxes. Finally, I’ll be very conservative and say that I would like us to return to the days of the 19th century when corporations did not have the same legal rights as persons. Together, this set of policies would take some important steps toward weakening cultural support for extrinsic, materialistic values and toward helping people more easily live their intrinsic values.    

How have you managed to counter the pressures of consumerism and materialism in your own life? Do you have any advice for parents who are hoping to protect their kids from these pressures?

My wife Ginny and I have together made a number of choices that help in this regard. We were extremely careful to purchase a home that we can afford on just one salary, so that has allowed her to work 20 hours a week, 30 weeks a year, and for me to work at a 2/3 level at the college where I teach. This gives us more time to work in the garden, be involved in the community and in activism, pursue our personal interests, and of course be with our kids. So I guess I’d say that we counter these pressures by trying to create a life that lets us live our intrinsic values. 

We also strive to keep the consumer messages and the pressures for work out of our home lives—we do not have cable TV or cell phones or the Internet at home, and we watch essentially no TV.  With our two boys, we’ve always limited their screen time (to about 30–45 minutes per day) so that they have had to find other ways to entertain themselves. That sometimes requires more effort on our part, but my sons do not require external electronic sources to entertain them, I think. 

Since my boys were old enough to talk, I explained to them what advertisements were and that the main thing they needed to know about them was that “they want your money.” We also have tried to explain to our sons why we choose to live the way we do, so we have had many family conversations about that topic as the boys have grown older. I feel like they have taken on a lot of our values, but the teenage years are upon us as we speak, so we’ll see how that develops!

You recently joined the board of the Center for a New American Dream. What drew you to New Dream, and what role do you see the organization playing in addressing the consumer challenge?

I had followed and been a member of New Dream for years, having met Julie Schor, Betsy Taylor, and others involved in the organization at many different meetings. I loved how New Dream had a fresh take on issues of consumption and consumer society, how it gave hope and encouragement, and how it showed that a better life is possible if we switch away from consumerism. So I was very honored to be asked to serve on the Board. 

I believe that New Dream has an important role to play in many respects. First, I don’t think that there are many organizations out there that are pushing for a fundamental shift of the type we propose—it is not just about consuming differently (which is important), but it is also about consuming less and re-orienting our lives and societal patterns toward what I would call intrinsic values. Second, I think that New Dream helps bring people together and helps them learn from each other, given the large number of inventive and interesting members we have. Finally, I think New Dream recognizes that there are multiple interlocking paths that can be taken toward the aim of a happier, more just, and more sustainable future, and thus rather than harping on just one or two answers, New Dream contributes by showing the multitude of possibilities that exist.   

Tim Kasser is professor and chair of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He has authored numerous scientific articles and book chapters on materialism, values, and goals. His books include The High Price of Materialism (2002), Psychology and Consumer Culture (2004, co-edited with Allen D. Kanner), and Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity (2009, co-authored with Tom Crompton). Tim joined the Board of the Center for a New American Dream in 2010.