The Psychology Behind Our Obsession with Material Wealth

May 13, 2011  |  

One of my favorite television shows is the Real Housewives series. Which season? Doesn’t matter. Pick one.  What’s not to love about a drama filled show that follows middle aged women and their husbands, and their habit of spending thousands of dollars on clothing, birthday parties for their kids and gaudy furniture for their McMansions.

However, a quick Google search shatters whatever illusion we have about the lifestyles these women portray on television. The reality off the small screen is that many of the women are damn near broke; they are in foreclosure, having vehicles repossessed and facing thousands in IRS tax liens.  Yet for me, the show provides valuable insight into our society’s values and aspirations.

It’s generally believed that poor people spend their money on material possessions while wealthy people spend their money on assets. But this idea goes far beyond the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ syndrome of the past since some of the biggest spenders appear to be the Joneses themselves.  What else could explain purchasing a $60,000 Swarovski crystal bottle of nail polish, an $8 million dollar Maybach and a $2,600 bottle of water? Yeah you heard me.

Why would a bottle of water be sold for $2,600 might you ask? Well, because it’s covered in Swarovski crystal. Interestingly, Kevin Boyd, the owner of the bottled water company called Bling H2O, admits that the water is no different than the water sold at the Cracker Barrel for $2.50. But according to Boyd, he is selling more than just water—he is selling a lifestyle.

Boyd isn’t the only one capitalizing off our thirst for the good life. The Discover Channel will soon launch Velocity, a cable television channel aimed at an often overlooked demographic: wealthy men. I’m not trying to knock the hustle of Boyd, Discover Channel or any other purveyor of “the lifestyle.” However, there is a sort of melancholy feeling among people these days who find themselves transfixed by shiny, expensive stuff. It’s a fascinating phenomenon if you stop and think about it—people buying stuff they can’t afford with money they don’t have just to impress people they probably don’t like. This is one of the reasons why foreclosure rates are high and credit card debt has increased ten-fold.

Part of the appeal is the whole concept of exclusivity, which is a clever marketing device to persuade folks that somehow their purchases will make them unique and different from others in their social standing. Being human means that we are not perfectly rational nor sensible at all times. Many of our purchasing habits are influenced by a whole host of emotional reasons such as self-esteem and self-image.

To fully understand this, you might want to consider Abraham’s Maslow hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory that was created in 1943 to describe the behavioral models of motivation as a means of satisfying human desires. Maslow believed that there were five types of desires that need to be fulfilled if every human were to feel whole: physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.

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