Tim Kasser is professor and chair of Psychology at Knox College in Illinois and the author of numerous books and articles on materialism, values, and goals. I spent a week with Tim in 2010 at Schumacher College, Devon, UK, where I was on their course “The Economics of Happiness”. Tim has kindly allowed me to publish this interview by him which he recently gave to the Center for a New American Dream.
How did you come to study issues of consumerism and values? Was there a defining moment that inspired you to investigate this topic so deeply for so many years?
When I was working on my Ph.D. in psychology in the early 1990s, I became interested in how people construct their lives. That led me to study people’s goals and what they were aspiring to create out of their lives. One day, I was running some statistics and getting ready to examine how personal well-being relates to prioritizing goals for money and possessions relative to other kinds of goals. I remember sitting in front of the computer thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if people who cared more about goals for money and possessions were less happy?”
I ran the analyses and that’s what I found. So I brought the result to my mentor, Rich Ryan, and he encouraged me to study it more. We were able to replicate the finding a couple of more times, and we soon published one of the very first research papers documenting this effect. The finding made a lot of sense to me in the context of the psychological theories I was learning about and from my observations of the culture in which we live, so I’ve continued to study this topic for almost 20 years now.
A lot of your research has focused on distinguishing between two types of goals: “extrinsic,” or materialistic, goals, and “intrinsic” goals. Can you explain the difference and describe how these shape people’s behaviors (as consumers or otherwise)?
Extrinsic goals include aims such as trying to make a lot of money, to have a lot of nice possessions, to have the “right” image, and to be popular and of high status. We call these goals “extrinsic” because they are focused on external rewards and other people’s opinions. In contrast, intrinsic goals include aims such as personal growth, accepting one’s self, having close relationships with family and friends, and contributing to the community. We call these goals “intrinsic” because they are likely to satisfy inherent psychological needs that psychological theories suggest all people have.
What we’ve found over the years is that these goals exist along a dimension—all of us have both kinds of goals, but people vary in how much they are focused on one set or the other. We’ve also found in dozens of studies that the more that people prioritize the intrinsic goals relative to the extrinsic goals, the more they are happy and satisfied with their lives, the more they feel alive and vital, and the more they experience pleasant emotions during their day-to-day lives. People who prioritize intrinsic goals are also less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, to experience unpleasant emotions and physical symptoms in their day-to-day lives, and to use drugs and alcohol. Other studies have also shown that a focus on intrinsic relative to extrinsic goals promotes more helpful, pro-social, cooperative behaviors and more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviors.
In essence, the research shows that the goals encouraged by consumer culture, which are primarily extrinsic, tend to diminish the quality of our lives, our society, and our Earth, whereas intrinsic goals promote greater health and well-being, more social justice, and greater sustainability.
You’ve also done research on environmental campaigning, including “what works” and what doesn’t. What, in your view, is missing from environmental campaigns, and what could be done to more effectively motivate people to effect change?
For the last two or three years I’ve been working with the World Wildlife Fund in the U.K. on these issues. What I’ve learned is that a great number of environmental organizations have been convinced by marketing agencies that the best hope they have for meeting environmental challenges is to sell people green products, to try to make being sustainable seem fashionable, to make the “business case for sustainability,” and to promote “green economic growth.”
What Tom Crompton (at WWF-UK) and I have been doing is marshalling the psychological evidence that calls this strategy into question. The fundamental problem is that such strategies end up activating and encouraging the kinds of extrinsic values that the research shows are associated with worse environmental attitudes and behaviors. We don’t doubt that people might be momentarily motivated to buy something green for these extrinsic reasons, but in terms of promoting long-term lifestyle change and the kinds of social movements that are going to be needed to bring us policies for sustainability, this strategy seems, at best, misguided and, at worst, fundamentally at odds with our overall goal.
We are more convinced by the data showing that everyone has intrinsic values and that it is more fruitful to activate and encourage these values. Certainly the research shows that people behave and talk in more environmentally positive ways when they have been asked to think about their intrinsic values or when environmental behaviors are framed as relevant to intrinsic goals.
One of the courses you teach at Knox College is titled “Alternatives to Consumerism”? What are the main alternatives you highlight, and what is the “take-home message” you are hoping to bring to your students?
This course is taken mostly by environmental studies and economics students, and many of them are feeling pretty hopeless about the state of the world. To me, the main point of the class is to give them hope that there are actually very feasible alternatives that have already been tested out in some places and that seem to work well. We talk about four main kinds of alternatives. We begin with personal lifestyle changes, discussing things like Voluntary Simplicity and avoiding debt. Then we talk about the media, and discuss ways that groups have fought back against commercialization, including “adbusting”; one of the really fun assignments is that students do a culture jam by designing and then hanging up “anti-ads” around campus. Next we talk about alternative economic models, so things like local currencies, leisure vs. money, and ways to dethrone corporate power. We end with social alternatives like homesteading, communal living, and alternative food systems. My sense is that by the end of the class, most students really do see that there are alternatives and have a sense of how we could personally and collectively bring them about.
Do you have hope that the “next generation” of consumers will have a better understanding of the challenges associated with excess materialism and consumerism? What are the bright spots that you’ve encountered among your students?
I do have hope, but it is measured. We have to remember that this next generation has been subjected to the best-funded, best-researched societal experiment ever, with billions and billions of dollars spent to convince them that organizing their lives around consumerism and money and technology is their best hope of a happy life. Many have bought into this message. At the same time, this coming generation is fairly savvy about how they are being manipulated (although I think they only see the tip of the iceberg) and are on the whole pretty aware of the problems we face environmentally and socially.
In my “Alternatives to Consumerism” class I ask my students to write a “consumerography,” or a biography of their lives as consumers. It is really remarkable how many of them see how empty that lifestyle is and how much they really want to figure out a different pattern of life for themselves and their kids one day. I have hope that they can, given how much energy, caring, and intelligence they show. I also have hope because most of them say that what they care about most are the intrinsic values—they just need help figuring out how to set up their lives and businesses and societies around those values.
About Tim Kasser
Tim Kasser is professor and chair of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He has authored numerous scientific articles and book chapters on materialism, values, and goals. His books include The High Price of Materialism (2002), Psychology and Consumer Culture (2004, co-edited with Allen D. Kanner), and Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity (2009, co-authored with Tom Crompton). Tim joined the Board of the Center for a New American Dream in 2010.