The early days of COVID brought a new sense of urgency to purchasing certain items. Toilet paper, pasta and bread flew off the shelves as people stocked up on vital supplies. Then came must-have buys to help with the boredom of lockdowns, with hot tubs, kitchen gadgets and new pets becoming wildly popular buys. So has the pandemic made us generally more materialistic?
Certainly, research suggests that a tendency toward materialistic behavior—a focus on acquiring money and possessions that signal economic and social status—is caused by high levels of stress, anxiety, and loneliness. For many, the pandemic has been a stressful, anxious and lonely time.
Materialism is also fueled by media consumption. And early reports have revealed that during times of lockdown and social restrictions, people are becoming even more glued to their screens than before.
But despite these conditions, which might have been expected to make people more materialistic, our research suggests the opposite was true. We asked people in the UK about their beliefs and values before and after COVID hit and found that, overall, most people cared less about money and material gains.
They rated goals such as “succeeding financially” and “having a well-paying job” lower than before. Other social values related to self-acceptance and sharing our life “with someone I love” have remained the same.
We believe that these changes could be explained by other factors related to the pandemic. For example, COVID has drawn attention to the importance of health. Additionally, advertising and social media have promoted social values such as solidarity and managing the challenges of a shared experience.
All our respondents did not have the same answer, it must be said. We used a variety of data collection techniques to survey a representative sample of the UK population, and those with the most media exposure and anxiety about COVID showed higher levels of materialism. Nevertheless, we have seen an overall reduction in people’s material interests.
There may be benefits to such a change in attitude. Research has shown that materialism leads to lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction, as well as negative moods and anxiety.
Yet popular culture and social media make materialism hard to avoid. From an early age, many children quickly learn to associate material gain with reward for good behavior.
As they age, they discover that things can help us present ourselves in a more attractive way and grab the attention of others. Material objects gradually become highly sought-after prizes that also help us overcome some of our perceived shortcomings.
To add to the appeal, the media and advertising industries typically promote materialistic beliefs through stories and images that link money and consumption to happiness, high self-esteem, and social recognition.
Read more: Advertising during the pandemic: How businesses have used COVID as a marketing tool
Of course, big advertisers and marketing departments haven’t completely avoided their traditional methods during COVID. Our research also revealed a higher number of social media posts from brands promoting consumption as a way to cope with negative emotions and improve well-being.
This, combined with a general reduction in the value placed on financial and material gains, could eventually lead to the development of polarized mindsets. On the one hand, it is possible that many people will continue the trend initiated by COVID and slowly move away from consumerism, potentially leading to profound social consequences: this may already be part of the reason for the “great resignation” on the labor market, where a higher than usual proportion of workers decided to quit their job.
On the other hand, however, the higher number of online advertisements and messages that present spending as a path to happiness could have the opposite result. Those most exposed to social media, such as teenagers and young adults, may be more likely to embrace materialism and experience some of the negative effects it brings.
This kind of polarized thinking could become part of the long-term social impact of the global health crisis, with serious ramifications for younger generations. A pandemic that has drawn many people away from the ill effects of materialism may have drawn others much closer to them.