Psychology faculty Tim Kasser

A Conversation with Tim Kasser


Tim Kasser is Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Illinois. He is a featured in the film and comments on both consumerism and materialism and how those values manifest themselves in society.




Tell me about the focus of the work you’ve been doing?

For the last 20 years, my colleagues and I have been studying people’s values and goals, or the aims in life that they believe are especially important (or not so important).  We’ve focused on two main kinds of goals.  The materialistic or extrinsic goals are the goals for money, image and status that are so encouraged by consumer capitalism. We contrast these with the “intrinsic” goals for personal growth (e.g., following your own interests and curiosity), affiliation (e.g., having close relationships with family and friends) and community feeling (e.g., helping the broader world be a better place).

What results continue to emerge from your research over those years?

“The more that people care about materialistic goals, the lower their personal well-being.”
We find that when people prioritize materialistic, extrinsic goals at a relatively high level compared to intrinsic goals, three consistent sets of findings emerge.  First, the more that people care about materialistic goals, the lower their personal well-being.  For example, people whose value/goal system is more focused on money, image and status report lower happiness and life satisfaction, more depression and anxiety, and a variety of other personal ills.  Second, the more that people care about materialistic goals, the less pro-socially they tend to behave.  For example, materialistic goals are associated with being less empathic and cooperative, and more manipulative and competitive.  Third, the more that people care about materialistic goals, the less they care about ecological sustainability and the more their lifestyles tend to have a damaging effect on the planet.

What role does advertising play to shape a society’s values?

A variety of research studies have shown that people who ingest more advertising have stronger materialistic values – this has been demonstrated both with children and adults.  Recently I published a study in which we looked at how high school seniors’ materialism has changed over time.  We found substantial increases in materialism over the last few decades, and also demonstrated that the extent to which a particular group of high school seniors valued materialistic aims was influenced by how much of the US’s economy was due to advertising expenses.  There are also experiments showing that viewing materialistic messages increases people’s materialism.  So the evidence is fairly compelling that a society imbued with a lot of advertising is likely to increase materialism among its citizens.

With regard to our values, what do you see when you look at America today?

“For this system to function smoothly, it needs citizens, business people, and government officials to focus on consumption.”
America has moved towards a political, social, and economic system in which materialistic values are highly privileged.  The form of capitalism that we pursue is highly competitive and is focused on maximizing economic growth and high levels of corporate profit.  For this system to function smoothly, it needs citizens, business people, and government officials to focus on consumption and work long hours.  At least two studies have shown that citizens in nations like America and the UK (i.e., nations that pursue this highly de-regulated, competitive form of capitalism) tend to have higher materialistic values relative to nations (like in Scandinavia) that moderate materialistic aims with other values.

Is it possible to rearrange our values and if so what will it take?

I don’t think it is possible to “rearrange” our values, as the way that values are arranged in the human motivational system seems to be a basic feature of our species.  I do think, however, that it is possible to place less priority on some values and more priority on other values.  I’ve written a lot about the ways to decrease materialism and, for me, the strategy boils down to two main approaches.  First, we have to diminish the power of those aspects of society that continually model the importance of materialistic values.  We can do that in our personal lives by avoiding those messages or critiquing them when we encounter those messages, and by trying to actually remove them from our society (e.g., by removing advertisements from public spaces).  Second, we have to figure out ways to increase the importance of intrinsic values in our own lives and in our society.  We can do this by trying to imbue our own career and life and financial choices with intrinsic values, and by working to develop business models (like co-ops and Benefit corporations) and governmental policies (like alternative indicators of national progress) that are more focused on intrinsic than materialistic values.

“Is my life set up in a way that actually reflects what I believe is most important?”

In your own life, how does the idea of values impact the choices you make for yourself and your family?

My wife and I have tried to make a lot of choices to decrease our exposure to materialistic values and to help us live our intrinsic values.  Both of us choose to work (and therefore earn) less than we could; she works about ½ time and I work about ¾ time for pay.  This gives us more chance to pursue our interests, be with our sons, and volunteer.  We have always limited our exposure to commercial media, and spend our time doing other things instead (e.g., playing music and games, reading, working in the garden).  We also have chosen jobs and financial investments that reflect our values.  And we’re both active in community organizations that are either trying to fight back against materialism or enhance intrinsic values.

What is one thing you want people to consider about the things they value?

I’d encourage people to ask themselves:  Is my life set up in a way that actually reflects what I believe is most important? If I say that my family is most important, do I actually act that out?  If I say I care about the Earth, do my job and my purchasing habits and my investments reflect that?  If I say I love to do X, do I make sure to take enough time to do X every day?