Category Archives: Wider Issues


Neuroplasticity and Television

Here’s an interesting thought for you. We could go into this more deeply, and maybe we will in the future, but just for the moment, ponder this. If you do anything regularly and consistently, the brain will change, actually change physically, anatomically, in structure. For example, in violinists the part of the brain linked to the left hand is bigger. Because violinists practice so much, the brain adapts to allow them to do this activity better, more efficiently. The neurological implications of consistent, regular repetition of violin playing are massive – neurons thicken, allowing more electricity and therefore stronger signals to pass through them, and more connections are made between neurons; all with the end result of making the violinist better at playing the violin.

How much time do you spend watching television? What are the neurological implications of this? What is the end result of the synaptical connections being made, day after day? What is it making you better at?


Five things everybody needs to know about materialism

“The things you own, end up owning you”
– Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

I’ve seen Fight Club about 58 times. It’s my favourite film. I love it so much I even had the above quote engraved onto the back of my iPod.

In the film, Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden is a pretty heavy anti-consumerist. He is disturbed by the way people look for self-esteem and happiness in material things, and senses a better way.

Tyler Durden Fight Club

Was he right about materialism? Some researchers have been looking into the effects that materialism has on people. Here are five things everybody should know:

1) High importance of money = low satisfaction with life

Seven-thousand people, in 41 countries were surveyed about the importance they place on money, and on love.  When these were correlated against life satisfaction it looked approximately like this:


As you can see, unsatisfied people (to the left) thought money way important and love wasn’t, and satisfied people (to the right) thought the opposite. (1,4)

2) Materialism is associated with mental health problems

People who value financial success highly are more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety. Likewise, materialists have lower levels of self-actualisation and vitality, (2) and are more likely to be visited by ghosts at Christmas time. (3)

3) Material goals can never be fulfilled

First you want the iPod. Then the clothes, the car, the big house, the boat, the bigger house, the bigger boat. You get stuck on a hedonic treadmill; today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s necessities, as your income and consumption rise, so do your desires and expectations. It’s like moving to a higher weight division in boxing – you can do it, but there’s always a bunch of bigger guys there waiting for you.

And if you combine high material aspirations with low income, you’re like a flyweight fighting a heavyweight. This is the worst combination of income and materialism you can have, in terms of well being. (4)

4) You seek self-esteem in things

Another study found a way to manipulate how important people think money is: they had people write out a list of their inadequacies. Once their failings had been literally spelled out for them, they thought money was more important. Their self-esteem had lowered, and they thought money could fill the gap.

The problem with this, is that you’re rooting your self-esteem in things outside of your control. It’s unstable. So if you lose a load of money from, say, I don’t know, a stock market crash, you’re more likely to feel bad about yourself, feel unpleasant emotions, and so on. (5)

5) Materialists live avoidance-based lives

It seems that the link between materialism and poor quality of life can be explained through something called “experiential avoidance.” This refers to the tendency to avoid negative experiences, thoughts, and behaviours, rather than to seek out good ones. Experiential avoiders are focused on getting away from what they don’t want, as opposed to moving towards what they do want. (6)

When the road to their goals and values is paved with the occasional negative experience, they tend not to walk the path, preferring to develop avoidance strategies. Ultimately, living in fear of negative thoughts, experiences and behaviours is associated with a number of negative mental health consequences, and is emotionally draining. This isn’t a black and white thing, and experiential avoidance may not be the defining feature of a person; but it tends to be more pronounced in people who have strong material desires.

Unanswered Questions

As satisfying as it would be to say that materialism causes all the above ailments, the evidence isn’t clear. All the above studies are correlational, so they can’t tell us what is causing what. It could be that people develop unhappiness, mental health problems or experiential avoidance first, and then turn to material goals as a way of coping, as in point 4. Clearly though, if this is the case, materialism doesn’t seem to be the answer.

The Solutions

How can we reduce materialism?

1) Gratitude

Grateful people are consistently found to be less materialistic, and when people are told to express more gratitude, they find themselves becoming less materialistic. The exact instructions given in one study, if you wanted to try this, were as follows:

Please put your pen or pencil down, close your eyes,
and consciously disengage from unpleasant mental and
emotional reactions by shifting attention to the heart.
For a few minutes, focus on sincerely feeling apprecia-
tion for what you have been given in life. Now, in the
space below please write about your experience and
about some of the things that came to mind.

Simpler gratitude exercises have been tested, such as each day writing down three good things that happened that day, and why they happened.

Why does it work? Gratitude, as I mentioned before, tends to make people happier. It could be that more satisfied people don’t seek well being in possessions as much. (7)

2) Meditation

The difference between what you want financially, and what you have, is called your “aspiration gap.” The bigger your aspiration gap, the lower your well-being. Consumer culture tells you that, rather than reduce this gap, you should fill it with things. Another path, which is popular in Eastern philosophy, is to reduce your desire, learn to want what you have. (8)

One way to do this is through mindfulness meditation.  I’m not qualified to give a run-down of how to meditate, but there are some good resources online: John Kabat-Zinn walks you through it in this video, and you can get guidance in mp3 format from Mental Workout (they are cheap: $1-2 each; I’m going through a few of their programs they seem pretty good so far).  Otherwise, just Google.

3) Watch Fight Club 58 times.

Worked for me.

Recommended Reading:


(1) Diener, E. and S. Oishi: 2000, ‘Money and happiness: Income and subjective well-being across nations’, in E. Diener and E.M. Suh (eds.), Subjective Well-beingacross Cultures (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA).

(2) Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration, journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410-422.

(3) Dickens, C. (1843). A Christmas Carol in Prose.

(4) Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2009). Will money increase subjective well-being?: A literature review and guide to needed research. The science of well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener (pp. 119-154). New York, NY US: Springer Science

(5) Unpublished study, reported in (4)

(6) Kashdan, T., & Breen, W. (2007). Materialism and diminished well-being: Experiential avoidance as a mediating mechanism. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 26(5), 521-539.

(7) Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Stillman, T., & Dean, L. (2009). More gratitude, less materialism: The mediating role of life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 32-42.

(8) Brown, K., Kasser, T., Ryan, R., Alex Linley, P., & Orzech, K. (2009). When what one has is enough: Mindfulness, financial desire discrepancy, and subjective well-being. Journal of Research in Personality

Money and pain

Some researchers have proposed that, because people can get through money certain things they can get through acceptance, money might act as a substitute for social acceptance. Since social distress and physical pain seem to have similar underlying mechanisms, a few interesting experiments have been done to test this idea. One study reports six experiments, which I’ll summarise briefly here.

Money and pain might be linked (not just through paper cuts)


Participants got together in groups of 4. They spent 5 minutes breaking the ice, then were led to separate rules and asked who they wanted to work with as a pair on an upcoming task. The researcher came back a little later, and randomly assigned the participant to one of two groups (method of random assignment was not mentioned). Either everyone wanted to work with them, or no one did.

After that, participants’ desire for money was assessed in three ways. They were asked to draw a coin from memory (previous research shows people with a bigger desire for money draw bigger coins), they were asked whether they’d permanently give up certain pleasures for money (e.g, chocolate, the beach), and they were asked to donate to an orphanage. Participants who were in the rejection group drew bigger coins, were more willing to give up pleasures for money, and donated less.

So social rejection appears to increase the desire for money, although maybe it’s negative emotions generally rather than rejection.


I love priming research. Just being exposed to words (sometimes so quick they are below conscious awareness) can have measurable effects on behaviour. Makes you wonder how much you’re being influenced by advertising and such as you go about your life (hope you’re enjoying the subheaders by the way!).

So money and rejection might be linked, what about money and pain? They might too. Exposing people to words like headache, sore, and pain caused increased desire for money, as indicated by the coin task and the giving up pleasures task. So as expected, social rejection and physical pain both seem to trigger desire for money, or priming related to pain at least.

More rejection

Participants were first asked to “test their finger dexterity”, by either counting money, or plain paper. They they played a computerised ball tossing game (Cyberball), which they thought they were playing with other people by computer link-up, but really was a simulation. For some people, the computer included them, for others, it started excluding them from the game after 10 throws (never trust a psychologist. They’re always up to something). Measures were taken of distress, positive and negative affect, and self-esteem.

What happened? People who had just counted money reported less distress and higher self-esteem after just being excluded. Maybe that’s why Scrooge took so long to change his ways – the money was a slight buffer against exclusion.

More pain

I’m probably going to put people off of ever taking part in psychological research by writing this. Another test of money and pain, similar set up to last time. Participants (or should we call them subjects?) counted money or paper, this time followed by a pain task – hand immersion in water at 50 degrees C. Then they rated how painful it was and took a mood scale.

Counting money prior to the task reduced self-reported pain. So now you know what to do before your next flu jab. There was no overall effect on mood.

Losing money, and being rejected

Maybe the previous results were due to being distracted by the money. To test this, the researchers tried to bring up feelings of losing money, and then exposing people to rejection (Cyberball again). Half of the participants wrote about what they’d spent recently, half wrote about the weather.

As you’re expecting by now, distress from Cyberball was higher in people who had just been writing about their expenditures. This also goes along with the main idea that money can be a proxy for social acceptance – soon after it’s gone (or you perceive it as going), the sting of rejection hits you harder. Unemployment must be a tough time.

Losing money, and pain

You get the idea by now – participants did the writing task from the previous test, followed by the hot water test from the one before that. Losing money and pain were also linked. People who had just been reflecting on the money they spent over the last 30 days reported that the water was more painful than people who had been reflecting on the weather.

These studies fit the general idea that money helps people to cope. Maybe it gives you a sense that, if something went wrong you’d be able to handle it, in much the same way that having close friends does. Since social rejection and physical pain seem to be closely intertwined, this proxy effect seems to carry over to that, too. Note that it’s a general sense of being able to cope that money provides, because in none of these studies would money be any help at all (unless you pay people to throw balls to you). And the effects seemed to be specific to rejection and pain, as the mood scores were not affected by the tests.

It’s interesting that we can be influenced subtly by symbolic and abstract things like money (or thinking about money). If these results are correct, and because of the repeat occurrence of the words ‘pain’ and ‘rejection’, presumably most people reading this article will be feeling a stronger desire for money right now than the people who chose a physics one. Maybe you’re one of them.

Need a hug?

The impact of 9/11 on American character

Let’s have some fun and pick apart a paper (try saying “pick apart a paper” 10 times fast!)

The question is, did 9/11 impact the character of Americans? I mean that personally not just in political attitudes towards this or that. It’s a tough question to answer empirically.

“What do you mean by character?” is the obvious first hurdle. Peterson and Seligman (2003) had a go, using their VIA model. They have a website,, where people can take a VIA self-report strengths test. I’ve discussed this model previously, here’s an overview, and here’s a comparison to another model of strengths. Your interest in the rest of the article will depend on how suitable you think that tool is to answering this question. It’s pretty new and quite easy to pick it apart (see the previous posts and comments).

So, thousands of people log in to that site and take the strengths test, giving the researchers a good opportunity to compare the results pre and post 9/11. First they looked at the 30 days before compared with the 30 days after 9/11. They found an overall difference, and then narrowed down to look at individual strengths. This is a part I’m confused about. There are 24 VIA strengths in this model, but they used a p value of .01. Surely they should have used .05 / 24 = .002? I’ve looked through the paper several times and can’t see a justification for using .01, it seems pretty arbitrary.

Anyway, using .01 they found significant differences for the strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality and teamwork. Kind of interesting, teamwork makes sense, maybe you’d expect a drop in things like hope straight after a terrorist attack.

When testing longer time periods, they stuck to the strengths that were significantly different in the month immediately after “For the sake of convenience”. Here are the results (this is a composite measure of the strengths identified in the first analysis which they name “Theological Virtues”):

At first glance 9/11/01 is clearly separating this increase. But how big is the difference? Effect sizes are not reported in the paper. As you can see in the graph, the difference is from about 3.7 to 3.8. What does it mean to be .1 higher in a combination of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality and teamwork? Does that mean anything in real terms, or does the difference only exist statistically? Even then, the exact p value is not given, in favour of “ps < .05". So we're back to .05 now, even though they say they tested each of the pre to each of the post time-points (12 tests), and presumably the ps are between .01 and .05 otherwise why not say < .01, or less than .001? We should also note that the sample sizes are massive - 4510 participants overall, which cannot help but contribute to lower p values, regardless of real-world effects. Anyway, even if this result was correct, maybe it isn't truly representative of the nation. As I mentioned, these results were from people who found the website (not a controlled sample). "Walk-ins" you might say. Another explanation is, after 9/11, people with more hope, leadership, gratitude etc., were more inclined to seek out and complete questionnaires of this type. I started by asking whether 9/11 affected the character of Americans. The answer is, "Who knows?" Saying that 9/11 gave Americans more gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality and teamwork is a nice story, but I don't think these results really show that. Reference: Peterson, C.,&Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). Character strengths before and after 9/11. Psychological Science, 14(4), 381-384.

Terror Management Theory – I don't want to die! (But I do want to shop…)

One of the most common forms of self-medication in capitalist societies surely has to be retail therapy. Is there really a problem that can’t be solved by a new pair of shoes, or the latest iWhatever? Interestingly, one of the problems people might be trying to overcome is the fear of death.

The insecurity and anxiety caused by the fear of death has some interesting effects on people. When people are reminded of their inevitable demise, they become more rooted in their outlook on life, this is called Terror Management Theory. For example, we start to see people with similar values and beliefs more positively, and people with different beliefs more negatively than we ordinarily would (1). We also become more reluctant to use cultural symbols like flags in improper ways (2).

Since some of the more salient values of Western culture are materialistic in nature – earn more money, accumulate more stuff, etc., – it might be the case that being reminded of our mortality makes us more materialistic, as we move deeper into our adopted values.

Local businesses attempt practical application of Terror Management Theory (Newsbie Pix)

Tim Kasser and Ken Sheldon did a couple of studies in 2000 to look into this (3). The exercise they used to induce mortality salience is just about as unpleasant as you’d expect – participants had to write about their feelings about the own death. The control group wrote about listening to music, which is obviously does not increase your awareness of death (unless your favourite band is Cannibal Corpse, perhaps).

After this, the people who wrote about death expected to be earning more in 15 years than the controls, and expected to be spending more money on “pleasure items.” In a second study, participants played a forest management game, and after writing about death, people were more willing to use up the resources of the forest, and were more interested in making profit. Curiously, another study found that materialistic people have more dreams about death (4).

Playing a game does not mean they would act this way if they were really head of a timber company, but it’s an interesting behavioural measure to go along with the self-report. There might be some parallels to other low-consequence scenarios (cutting yourself a larger slice of pizza, for example!). Maybe. The aim here was to investigate greed, a typical characteristic of materialistic people.

So although a self-report and imagined exercise are not definitive, they at least give an idea of the direction of causality, to go along with correlational data linking materialism with concerns about one’s death (5) – this study also found partial mediation of the relationship by insecurity, which fits with the general idea that higher materialism comes about to make up for some personal insecurity, which itself can be triggered by the fear of death.

You could make some speculations linking these ideas to George Bush’s advice to go shopping following the 9/11 attack. People have their own theories on why W gave that advice, which we won’t go into here, but maybe here’s an idea on why people were so ready to take the advice.


(1) Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., et al. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.

(2) Greenberg, J., Porteus, J., Simon, L.,&Pyszczynski, T. (1995). Evidence of a terror management function of cultural icons: The effects of mortality salience on the inappropriate use of cherished cultural symbols. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(11), 1221-1228.

(3) Kasser, T.,&Sheldon, K. (2000). Of wealth and death: Materialism, mortality salience, and consumption behavior. Psychological Science, 11(4), 348-351.

(4) Kasser, T.,&Grow Kasser, V. (2001). The dreams of people high and low in materialism. Journal of Economic Psychology, 22(6), 693-719.

(5) Christopher, A., Drummond, K., Jones, J., Marek, P.,&Therriault, K. (2006). Beliefs about one’s own death, personal insecurity, and materialism. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(3), 441-451.