In Brief

People who chronically doubt themselves and their self-worth are more inclined toward materialism than their more self-confident peers, a new study suggests.

In particular, they're likely to purchase certain cars, homes and other big-ticket items that they think others will admire, found Ohio State University psychology professor Robert Arkin, PhD, and LinChiat Chang, PhD. Less important to self-doubters is the way they themselves feel about the items and their usefulness, the research team found in a study published in the journal Psychology and Marketing (Vol. 19, No. 5).

"Self-doubters evaluate themselves from the perspective of others," explains Arkin. "So, the pleasure one of them would take from having a possession might not be defined so much by how much they enjoy it, but by how much others covet it."

To uncover that result, Arkin and Chang conducted experiments with 615 undergraduates. In the first, participants completed measures of self-doubt and materialism--particularly how much they think materialism indicates happiness and success. Results revealed that self-doubt predicted materialism. Participants in the second experiment either had to memorize a set of self-doubting words--such as "insecure," "doubtful" and "uncertain"--or a set of neutral words before filling out a questionnaire on their materialism views "right now."

Not only did the self-doubting words increase self-doubt among those predisposed toward it, but they appeared to intensify materialistic tendencies among them as well. In a third experiment, Arkin and Chang found that materialism is also more prevalent in those primed to feel that society is normless and that values are arbitrary. Taken together, the results suggest that "those provoked to feel doubt about who they are, or about the meaning of existence in society, will invest themselves more in things," says Arkin.

And if they eventually acquire all those "things," will they find happiness? "No," says Arkin. "Most of the literature shows a negative relationship between materialism and psychological well-being. Materialism might satisfy someone in the short term, but in the long term it is nonoptimal, and perhaps even maladaptive."