One of the first studies to focus on materialism among children and its development reveals a strong connection between an increase in materialism during adolescence and a decline in self-esteem.
Indeed, Lan Nguyen Chaplin (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Deborah Roedder John (University of Minnesota) show that the relationship appears to more than just a correlation, but a causal relationship -- low self esteem causes increased materialism and raising self esteem decreases materialism.
In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research, Chaplin and John studied children of different age groups and found that, generally, self-esteem increases from middle childhood (8-9 years) to early adolescence (12-13 years), but then declines during adolescence until the end of high school (16-18 years). This mirrors patterns in materialism, which increases in early adolescence but decreases in late adolescence during the transition into young adulthood.
They found that even a simple gesture to raise self esteem dramatically decreased materialism, which provides a way to cope with insecurity: "By the time children reach early adolescence, and experience a decline in self-esteem, the stage is set for the use of material possessions as a coping strategy for feelings of low self-worth," they write.
After assessments of self-esteem and materialism levels, children of different age groups were asked to make a collage about what makes them happy on paper plates. Some children were given paper plates on which their peers had written positive comments about them. This seemingly small gesture completely eliminated the differences in materialism among different age groups that the researchers observed earlier.
"Our results indicate that simple actions to raise self-esteem among young consumers can have a dramatic impact on expressions of materialism," Chaplin and John write. "By priming high self-esteem, we reversed the large drop in self-esteem experienced by early adolescents, thereby reducing the steep rise in materialism among this group."
Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John, "Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents." Journal of Consumer Research: December 2007.
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