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Sunaina Chugani: Psychology Of Materialism

--Janis Daddona, on Aug 6, 2013

By Janis Daddona and Sunaina Chugani
[This is a revised posting]

Our guest on Forest Call recently was Sunaina Chugani, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Marketing at Baruch CUNY in Manhattan.  It was my pleasure to spend a lot of time with her while on a retreat in California earlier this year, and her wisdom and genuine concern for people was evident throughout.  Her students will have a lot more to care about in her classes than just how to get people to consume.  We on the call were privileged to get a preview of what’s in store for them!  Our thoughtful and gracious moderator was Birju Pandya.  

BP:  Why did you choose consumer behavior as a career?  

SC:  I grew up in a huge family on the border of Mexico in a little city called McAllen, TX.  It has been listed as one of the top three most materially poor cities in the country.  My parents ran a jewelry business, and as I grew up I heard stories about the different people that would come into the store    I remember hearing about customers who didn’t have a lot of material wealth stretching themselves to buy jewelry from us. Then, they would return a month or so later and sell it back to us, saying things like they the needed the money because they couldn’t make rent that month.  It got me to thinking about why there is such a strong pull to consume material products that people would do so even at the risk of harming one’s greater well-being..  I also grew up in a family that practiced Eastern philosophy which taught that happiness from “worldy” possessions is temporary.  And my father is a very simple man and in fact has his masters in marketing, so he used to tell me all the ins and outs marketers use to sell their products.   So all this led to my desire to study this field.  

BP:  How do you study materialism, what are your findings, how do you define it?  

SC:  I actually studied hedonic adaptation for my doctoral degree, which is a process that feeds into materialistic behavior. Materialism is defined as the importance you place on purchasing and owning products to attain life goals such as happiness and success.  It’s actually a scale we’re all on.  Someone is considered more materialistic who thinks owning things is important to be happy.  We measure people’s level of materialism through established scales and then see how it correlates with specific behavior, educational levels, income levels, that sort of thing.  We also ask what psychological processes lie beneath it and what are the results of a materialistic mindset?  

BP:  “Want” and “need.”  How do you parse the difference?  

SC:  Let’s look at some of the causes of materialism.  We are all insecure to some degree, but some of us are more so than others. Those who grew up with economic insecurity are more so, and therefore they tend to be more materialistic.  What we also find is that those who grew up developmentally insecure—children whose caregivers were less than nourishing or divorced—feel insecure.  So for them ownership creates a sense of security.  A feeling of “I’m not good enough”—as  evidenced through lower self-esteem, higher self doubt, and greater social anxiety—also leads to higher levels of materialism.    One study found that from mid-childhood to early adolescence a child’s materialistic behavior rises due to feelings of insecurity and a desire to fit in.  But once they reach late adolescence and their self-esteem rises,  their materialistic behaviors decline.   But one question is why we turn to materialism to deal with feelings of insecurity?  I think that where we turn to when we need a sense security depends on our environment: who we are around, the values we see.  For example, our TV programs tend to glorify materialistic behavior. If we see others turning to materialism as a source of fulfillment, that option becomes more available to us.

BP:  To what extent do you think that  businesses meet vs. manufacture consumer needs and wants?  

SC:  Well, we all have our needs to feel secure and fulfilled, and I think businesses offer us one way to fulfill those needs. Unfortunately, those are often superficial ways. As a community, family, and friends we have to say there are other, deeper ways to be fulfilled.  Infinite Love, the non-profit my family founded, is one answer to this.   

BP:  What is Infinite Love and how did it start?  

SC:  My family worked hard to establish themselves and became comfortable in life. My mom began wondering, though, if there wasn’t more to life than living comfortably. When I went off to work on my Ph.D., tragedy struck my family: we lost a cousin to cancer, another cousin became paralyzed in an accident, and aunt went through a tough  divorce, and a dear uncle passed away suddenly This opened us up to reevaluate our lives and pushed my mom to approach our family with her dream of giving back to the community. With their help, Infinite Love was born on Valentine’s Day 2012.  We offer Wednesday meditations and a space for community to come together and share, we serve cancer patients, their families, and the homeless, and we work on fostering inner growth in our community.  We’re just seeing where it takes us; we’re tapping into our deeper values, enhancing gratitude, and building community.  

BP:  There seems to be a hunger for this in the city.  What makes people want to get involved?  

SC:  Some people feel something is missing in their lives.  Or trauma wakes them from their routine.  Or they are already spiritually-minded and are looking for an outlet for that.  I often think of a quote by Rumi:  “Maybe you’re searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.”  This work really gets down into the roots.  

BP:  You are in a unique position to understand all this.  How has your own behavior changed?  

SC:  We chase after products hoping for transformation.  But it’s transitory partly due to what is called hedonic adaptation, which is almost a biological process.  When we acquire something new, we gain a temporary boost in happiness. But soon, that new thing becomes part of the status quo, or what is considered normal, so it no longer makes us happy. This happens with products as well as with income.  Businessmen have told me that they have to keep revising their income goals upward because once they meet their goal, they realize they want more. This is the hedonic treadmill; you keep walking but you remain in the same place.  So we have to decide what is considered enough for us, instead of running after more and more.  Before I buy anything, I ask myself how I will feel about it in one month.  That helps me to control my consumption habits.  If we keep thinking we need more in order to be happy, we miss the abundance that we already have in our lives:  community, loved ones, simple things like our sight and our breath, and we miss seeing the beauty in the ordinary that is all around us.  

BP:  Happiness and meaning are two different things.  Are businesses speaking to both?  

SC:  I think businesses could speak to both. For the most part, businesses fulfill our needs at a superficial level. I think they can easily tap into deeper needs to help individuals find more sustainable happiness.