Focus on money lessened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

March 16, 2022
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A series of three studies examined the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on materialism, finding an overall decrease in the importance people place on money. This research was published in the journal Psychology & Marketing.

Materialism refers to “beliefs that link wealth and consumption with personal achievement and happiness.” Various studies have found negative associations between materialism and well-being. Higher media consumption enhances the advocacy of materialistic values. As well, in consumer-oriented societies, reminders about one’s mortality enhance materialism. Lockdown restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic increased media consumption by up to 27%. News stories shared narratives about illness, death, and survival, increasing reminders of mortality. Thus, it could be possible that the societal and behavioral changes that emerged with the pandemic enhanced materialistic values.

In this work, Olaya Moldes and colleagues examined the role of behavioral and emotional changes associated with the pandemic in the endorsement of materialism, and changes in attitudes toward money and consumption.

Study 1 examined the association between materialism and changes that resulted from the pandemic and lockdown restrictions on factors that are known to contribute to materialism. Seven-hundred forty-one participants from the United Kingdom (UK) responded to items assessing materialism (e.g., “I admire people who own expensive homes, cars, and clothes”), media consumption (e.g., amount of TV consumption or online video content), social isolation (e.g., “I have been missing social contact”), negative emotions (e.g., “I have felt lower moods than before”), stress and anxiety (e.g., “I been feeling more anxious than before”), perception of COVID-19 as a life threat (e.g., “Do you think that the spread of the COVID‐19 virus is a threat to the life and health of your loved ones?”), financial impact of COVID-19 (e.g., “my financial situation has worsened”), subjective economic status (e.g., “Comparing yourself with other people in your country, how would you describe your (or family) financial situation?”), as well as demographic information (e.g., sex, age, race, occupation, nationality).

Study 2 examined value changes due to the pandemic and lockdowns in the UK using two time points. Time 1 data was collected in February 2020, recruiting 200 UK-based participants, while Time 2 data was collected 15 months later. A total of 87 participants returned for the Time 2 survey. At Time 1, participants responded to questions relating to life aspirations, including importance given to money, popularity, self-acceptance, community orientations, and affiliation. Participants’ material vs. experiential spending preferences were also measured. Lastly, participants responded to various demographic questions. At Time 2, participants once again completed questions assessing life aspirations, and materialism (same as in Study 1).

Study 3 aimed to expand the insights of Study 2 by collecting publicly available data on shopping behaviors. Specifically, the researchers were interested in examining increases in “retail therapy” (i.e., spending as a means to deal with undesired emotions) during the COVID-19 pandemic by conducting content analysis of tweets containing the hashtag #retailtherapy. Data was collected at two time points, January 2018 to March 2020 and March 2020 to June 2021, allowing the researchers “to detect and compare any changes in consumption as a coping mechanism.”

Moldes and colleagues found that “contextual effects due to a global health crisis that have altered the roots of materialism only account for small variations in its advocacy.” Study 1 revealed a decrease in the amount of importance individuals place on money, suggesting the pandemic may have prompted changes in people’s values. Increases in media consumption and stress/anxiety due to the pandemic were associated with greater materialistic values. Social isolation, negative emotions, and the perception of COVID-19 as a life-threatening illness were not significant predictors of materialism.

Study 2 showed a decrease in the importance people place on economic resources throughout the pandemic, “despite an increase in the factors that facilitate the endorsement of materialism.” The authors suggest that it may be the case that other forces (e.g., prioritizing health) or “the emergence of collective social identities that promote social solidarity and cooperation… may be diminishing the focus on material and economic resources.” Further, there were no changes in the preference for material over experiential consumption.

Lastly, Study 3 revealed that there was a downward trend in consumption and overspending, as observed on Twitter, providing further support for the finding that materialism may have decreased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there was an increase in brands promoting shopping as a coping mechanism through their online channels, suggesting that the media pushed for material consumption as a way to improve well-being.

The researchers note that Studies 1 and 2 were conducted in the UK; thus, the results may not generalize to other cultural populations. They write, “Along the same lines, future studies should examine other factors that were introduced or changed during the pandemic, such as a higher focus on health, or cooperation and solidarity that often surface during emergency situations. These elements may have counterbalanced the effects that a rise in the factors previously found to facilitate materialism would have predicted outside of a health crisis.”

The research, “Has the COVID‐19 pandemic made us more materialistic? The effect of COVID‐19 and lockdown restrictions on the endorsement of materialism”, was authored by Olaya Moldes, Denitsa Dineva, and Lisbeth Ku.

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