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Social Models and Consumerism

The commonsense notion that money can't buy happiness has been moving quickly from the status of proverb to that of scientific theory. We're increasingly realizing that interpersonal relationships are much more effective at producing happiness than material goods. Will Wilkinson summarizes an argument by Robert Lane as to why, if that's true, we continue to buy stuff:

What I take Lane to be saying is that companionship adds a subtle positive tone to experience, and we report ourselves much happier when our experience is shot through with that tone. The positive tone is the correlate of an objective organic good. (Not clear the way the causation goes here.) But the quality of the experience is subtle, the source is not easily attributable, and we quickly adapt to its absence, and so are not easily motivated to seek out its cause.

The hedonic surge from material consumption, however, is intense and immediate, and its source is easily attributable. However, due to habituation to the presence of new stuff, there is little lasting satisfaction from consumption. We'd be better off cultivating our relationships. However, because the fleeting hedonic payoff of consumption is more psychologically salient, we're more easily moved to go for a fresh consumption high. Thus, we'll tend to make ourselves less happy, and less healthy, as we consume.

That's certainly a plausible explanation. But why is it that relationships retain their happiness-producing power even when we start to take them for granted, while the happiness of stuff fades not just from our conscious perception but from our real psyche? Here I think our old friend Alan Fiske can help out again.

One of the core elements to Fiske's theory is that all four models of social interaction are inherently enjoyable. Thus, for example, Equality Matching isn't just a useful system for allocating things, it's also fun to engage in in and of itself. Thus we're missing the mark somewhat to think of the pleasures of consumerism as arising solely from the "stuff" itself or the act of posessing it. Certainly we generally must, to some degree, want the "stuff" for its own sake. But the strongest pleasures of consumerism are the pleasures of shopping, the pleasures of engaging in Market Pricing interactions with sellers.

Thus consumerism has a big burst of social interaction pleasure at the beginning, in the process of buying. But that quickly fades once the transaction is over. On the other hand, the social relationships that we're contrasting consumerism with -- hanging out with friends and family -- are continuous. Of all the social models, Market Pricing is least associated with ongoing social interaction. The proliferation of products and stores in our society aids and abets the tendency to have many one-off Market Pricing interaction. The pleasures of consumerism are renewed at a faster rate than the pleasures of relationships (you go to the store more often than you meet a new friend), so we're less habituated to them, and thus they produce the spikes of obvious utility that (as Lane theorizes) fool us into thinking that consumerism makes us happier on the whole.


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