General Question

Perchik's avatar

Why do Americans have an undying need to consume?

Asked by Perchik (4987points) July 26th, 2007

We are a consumer nation. People all want their big SUVs, their iPods [iPhones], and the biggest house on the block. Whether these goals are realistic or completely unobtainable (like those of us who can't afford to buy everything) they still linger in our minds, "I wish I had 600$ to buy this iPhone". This mindset seems to almost make people ignore the issues facing our country, unless it directly effects their ability to consume.

Why are so many Americans caught in this super-consumer mindset? And when did this start happening to America? (aka when did American's start becoming so self centered)

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45 Answers

nomtastic's avatar

the myth is that this is a question of individual decision... certain policy decisions (by governments and corporations) have created things like the suburbs, shopping malls, and huge fuel guzzling vehicles that just aren't available in other countries.

nomtastic's avatar

but people also consume at a rate that is unsustainable in many parts of the world.

atuarre's avatar

Because we, as Americans have been spoiled. We are used to getting everything we want, even when we cannot afford it.

gailcalled's avatar

I think that the better question is "Why do some Americans feel the need to overconsume." There are lots of us who think before we spend, recycle, buy second-hand clothes, barter, etc. We tend to boycott Malls, gas guzzlers, $600 shoes, etc.

Perchik's avatar

Good call gail :-) I'm right there with you.

hearkat's avatar

"Keeping up with the Joneses" has been around for generations, but it does seem to get more widespread as time passes. I believe that mass media does help to feed the cycle of making us feel that we'd be happier if we had this, that or the other item. It's not just advertising, either; all the celebrity worship seems to make younger people think that those excessive lifestyles are what the "norm" is.

Personally, I purchase the items that I want when I want (and can afford) them, based on MY needs and desires. Yes, I have an iPhone (thanks to having 6-months warning to save up) but I previously did not spend hundreds of dollars on "smart" phones because they did not do what I wanted; so I made due with cheap or free basic phones and waited until the product that fit my needs was created.

I view our society's celebrity worship, consumerism and many other ills on simple avoidance. So many people do not seem to have personal contentment with themselves or a sense of fulfillment, so they look to things outside of themselves for happiness. Many people are driven by the desire to impress others or to live up to the expectations (real or imagined) of family, friends or society in general. The do things and buy things because they think they are supposed to.

Industries and individuals have amassed great wealth by feeding on others' insecurities; and so the cycle perpetuates, because those with the wealth invest in growing their business through advertising and also by lobbying or getting themselves in positions of power. The CEOs are not concerned with the general public (their customers), and they are not even concerned about those producing the products they sell (their employees), they are only concerned about their own bottom line.

It is up to we the consumers to be more mindful of the choices we make with our dollars. Perhaps we should spend a little more to buy products that are manufactured in environmentally and socially responsible ways. But with so many products being over-priced, many Americans can only afford the sweatshop goods at WalMart. Again, the system has become so well entrenched that it may not be reversible at this point.

I could honestly go on for days about this! I guess I'll end with the bumper-sticker slogan: Think Globally, Act Locally

segdeha's avatar

I don't know how it started, but I can say pretty definitively that it's ingrained in U.S. culture at this point. Having recently moved overseas, there is way less emphasis on "status by stuff" here than I ever experienced in the States.

Jill_E's avatar hit the nail!

mzgator's avatar

....because most American's value success by their wealth and number of possessions. Having the newest, best "whatever of the moment" instantly will show others how successful they have become. Wealth does not always mean success in life.
The most successful person I ever personally knew, certainly was not wealthy. She lived all of her life extremely poor. She raised 9 children all by herself, because her husband was never around. She never had much, but always was willing to share whatever she had, even with strangers. She touched so many people, even strangers with her giving spirit and friendship. She invested in people and in people's lives. She worried more about helping her neighbors, family and friends than about having the latest "thing." She make the world a better place to live.

Don't get me wrong, I love having new things too, but my husband and I sacrifice other things and plan and save to get them. We make goals and try to reach them. We usually get what we want, but not always exactly right now.

When we got married, we made a goal to go to Hawaii one day. 14 years later we went. We saved and saved. We gave up going out to eat. We cooked special romantic dinners at home, trying out new recipes every Friday night. We no longer went to movies.....etc. We could have charged the whole trip and worried about paying for it later, but instead, we saved. I think the trip was so much better, because we had to wait and save together. I don't know if it would have meant as much to us if we had gone when we first got married.

nomtastic's avatar

i will throw a wrench into this discussion: i don't think we should think of "buying more responsibly" as fixing the problem of overconsumption, nor do i believe that "voting with your dollars" is a good system (there is a problem when more dollars = more votes.) i think that part of the way the u.s. 'stays on top' in the world is by making sure its citizens are spending.

hearkat's avatar

For the USA to stay "on top" economically, we need to spend on goods from the USA. If we buy items that are manufactured abroad, our dollars are being funneled into other economies. Have you been following the stock market lately?

The rich have continued to get richer, the middle class has dug itself into deep debt trying to keep pace, and the poor are growing in numbers. It is not possible to support a family of 4 on $20,650 per year!
Minimum wage just went up to $5.85/hour... could you support yourself on that? Honestly? I am confident that NO ONE in congress has tired to survive on less than 6-figures in many years. They are completely out of touch with the way real life is for the working-class poor.

I am not saying to "vote" with our dollars, I am saying we should consider the implications -- ecological and economical -- of our purchases and be mindful of where our dollars will go. We have the information superhighway at our fingertips, and we know we can not count on the mass media to provide unbiased reports on corporate or political goings-on. This needs to be our tool to share knowledge and give birth to new ideas. Somethings gotta change!

Perchik's avatar

@hearkat about the minimum wage and congress:
On the CNN/Youtube debate, one of the question was a challenge to the candidates " if you were elected, would you be willing to live on the minimum wage? " The best answer (imo) was Obama who said something to the effect of "I think all of us on this stage could do it, because we all have enough saved to get by " then he went on to say that he would raise the minimum wage to a living wage, something that could actually support a family.

(yeah completely offtopic I just liked what you said about congress)

hearkat's avatar

Funny how Obama didn't mention all the freebies and perks of being in a position of power... when's the last time any of them actually paid for a meal out of their own pockets (not OURS or lobbyists). If you totaled all the handouts (especially since most are never actually recorded) I am confident there's be another 6-figures to add to their generous salary.

Perchik's avatar

yeah, I was just saying even if they were forced to live on a minimum wage, it wouldn't effect them.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

I think the 2008 Presidential Candidate Ron Paul put it best about our govt, which has rubbed off on us. He said that we live way beyond our means, spending all of this BORROWED MONEY from the Federal Reserve, that most of our Federal Income Taxes pay for the interest on this borrowed money, on things that we cant afford, like wars, and many other parts of govt, that make other people rich, while destroying the middle class. We have become a DEBT nation instead of a SAVING nation. It isnt going to last forever if we keep this up.
Ron Paul is the only candidate that stresses this

Poser's avatar

Your question itself is flawed. Americans don't have an undying need to consume. Poor and middle class Americans have an undying desire to consume. The rich keep their desire to consume in check. They worry about how to pay for what they want before they buy it (like mzgator's trip to Hawaii). The poor and middle class buy what they want, then worry about how to pay for it. The ensuing debt depresses them, so to relieve the depression, they buy more stuff, only to worry more about how to pay for it.

That is why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Wealth and poverty are mindsets that determine your fate. There truly is no excuse in a nation like America for poverty. The blame, however, lies not on the rich, but on those who blame the rich for poverty.

Perchik's avatar

Well...If the rich don't consume, they aren't putting the money back into the system.

Poser's avatar

The rich do conusme. They contribute tons of money to the system. That's why they're rich. The difference is when and how they pay for it.

There is nothing wrong with consumption, in and of itself. But how, why and when people consume--therein lies the problems.

segdeha's avatar

@Poser, you said: "The rich keep their desire to consume in check."

Could you clarify what you mean by that? It ain't the poor and middle class who are buying million dollar houses and yachts and Ferraris.

gailcalled's avatar

Or need 24,000 sq. ft in order to live adequately.@segheda; you've been away too long. $1 mil won't get you much in NYC, SF, LA, Chi, Cleveland, St. Louis, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, or their suburbs, just to mention a few high-rent districts.

Poser's avatar

The rich go out and make the money first, then they consume. For the rich, the money comes first, then the stuff. For the poor, the stuff comes first, then the money. That's what keeps them in poverty, or middle-class-erty(?).

The rich buy things they can afford, while the poor and middle class buy things they can't afford.

segdeha's avatar

@Poser, I see your point, but that sure is a sweeping generalization.

Poser's avatar

Of course it is. But it's dependent upon one's definition of wealthy.

Consider, for instance, the difference between the words "poor" and "broke."

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

I have been researching this question. I have stumbled upon a BBC documentary called The Century of the Self. It can be found on google video. It is a four hour film about Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who is one of the fathers of public relations. It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It answers the question, and the answers are very scary.

segdeha's avatar

@chris6137 – sounds interesting, would you mind summarizing a couple of the key points?

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Conrad_III's avatar

To live, we must consume and to consume, we must first produce. Americans are very talented at two things: 1) producing things and 2) getting other, poorer nations to produce things for us.

Consuming is part of human nature, and so we do it whenever we get a chance. A good analogy would be a squirrel who finds way too many acorns and then gets fat. In his own mind, he ought to get fat, because he never knows when acorns will become scarce again.

It’s the same with people. Every human on the planet is programed to consume, and those humans who live in more affluent nations consume more. If Mexico or Egypt produced as much as the US, they would consume as much as us too.

DryaUnda's avatar

Historically, people came to this country (even before it was a country) to make money and get away from the rest of the world. Those people had children for whom money was a concern even outside of survival, and for whom the rest of the world was a non-issue beyond any family back in the “old country”. Expensive things symbolize success in the United States, why this is so is because of the country’s history.

Poser's avatar

I think expensive things symbolize success throughout the world, not just in America.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

I Think things are expensive because the dollar Is worth less, it tales more dollars to buy the same item.

segdeha's avatar

@chris6137, True! It takes an ounce of gold to buy a nice suit today. It took an ounce of gold to buy a nice toga for the ancient Greeks. Inflation is a result of policies and practices of central banks, including the Federal Reserve (which—most people don’t know—is not a branch of the U.S. government, but a private consortium of the biggest banks in the world.)

nerfmissile's avatar

This is fundamentally a question of spirituality, and must be dealt with at this level. Individual consumer behavior is inevitably up to the individual consumer—but we all live in the context of our shared culture. Does everyone really believe that pro sports stars are contributing enough to civilization to be paid multiple millions of dollars per year while the true stars, cancer researchers, spiritual leaders ( if there are any—I don’t know offhand of any remarkable living ones ) and technological innovators make so much less?

It really comes down to a question of priorities. The principal activity of our collective civilization here on Earth, in terms of man-hours, money and energy, is tribal warfare. So on one hand, we’re obsessed with killing each other in the name of Allah or God or oil. On the other, we measure our success as individuals by how shiny and expensive our import cars are, or how fine, exclusive and prestigious our collection of [ expensive stuff ].

But why are cars, bombs, big houses and the oil that fuels them our top priorities? Some of this may be something like automated, self-reinforcing cycles : we make more bombs because we need them for war because we go to war because we make more bombs. Or we buy bigger cars because they make us feel safer and more important because we deserve to ride high because we buy bigger cars.

On the other hand, it makes the top CEOs a lot richer to sell us the idea, 24/7, via every available media channel, that we cannot possibly be happy without Viagra to have sex, Ambien to have sleep, mo’ bigga GMC to get to work and something massive and brand new by Pulte to come home to and live in, furnished by the excesses of [ brand name ]. We live in a world where solar conversion technology has reached 40% efficiency and it’s cheap to make solar tiles… yet they’re nowhere to be seen. No, we have to go dig in the sand for our energy instead because… you know, we need to make more bombs. And we couldn’t possibly relinquish even an iota of big oil power to the insufferable solar power hippies ( or the free hydrogen from seawater via radiofrequency people, or the ethanol from grass and silage people, or the methane from algae people, or the [ insert repressed free/renewable energy patent here ] people ), no matter how many innocent lives it takes!!! Oil is the answer, its delightful seabird-slickening blackness and its greenhouse gas-emitting goodness… oh and also how it happens to make the few a lot richer since it can be so easily controlled.

Truly successful individuals find a spiritual awakening where they realize there is more to existence in this great universe than something that can be branded and sold by an elite. Truly successful individuals aim to make their ecological footprint light, keep their old Hondas and Toyotas running for as long as possible and do everything they can to spread love and reduce suffering in the lives of others around them. They seldom extol their own virtues or aspire to run Fortune 500s—but then we have those who have put on the CEO shoes for a while and decided to turn their lives around and give back, and they make the largest positive impacts! Thank you Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and many others for remembering that you are parts of a bigger whole. Perhaps others will follow in your remarkable footsteps. And Bill, perhaps someday you’ll discover that India is the world’s largest democracy and has more poor and starving people than Africa. Or maybe you’ll help discover Central and South America ( our neighbors, right? ) for the aid agencies.

If you believe that your success needs to be represented by physical trophies branded by the elites, then your success doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to others, and it pays for their jet fuel and their private islands. And how the entire planet and the sustainability of civilization pays, when the little fish try to keep up with the big fish, and when the big fish keep getting bigger.

It is good that we cannot yet be forced to choose what success is. Sanity, though diminishing, is still an option—and likewise is the future of humanity.

artemisdivine's avatar

one of my FAVE topics always… i buy too much crap all the time. i have had too many garage sales to count. think about consumption/buying and the reasons for it. and it is not just something people invented on their own that i know for sure!

one of the coolest satirical magazines on it… (sadly no longer could i find on site)
Adbusters Magazine WINTER 2000
Manufacturing Desire by Harry Flood

Welcome to the factory floor. The product? Things that are not essential, but hard to live without. What’s being supplied here is demand. Want. Craving. All you could desire. All you can imagine. Maybe more than you can handle.

In contemporary American culture, consuming is as authentic as it gets. Advertisements, getting a bargain, garage sales, and credit cards are firmly entrenched pillars of our way of life. We shop on our lunch hours, patronize outlet malls on vacation, and satisfy our latest desires with a late-night click of the mouse.1

Schor, Juliet “The New Politics of Consumption: why Americans want so much more than they need” :
TThe Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (Paperback)
by Juliet B. Schor

‘su:Consumer behavior United States.’ Results 1–10 of about 2,168 (1.66 seconds)
this link refuses to work so just use ‘Consumer behavior United States’ in the search

A consumers’ republic : the politics of mass consumption in postwar America
by Lizabeth Cohen
Consuming desires : consumption, culture, and the pursuit of happiness
by Roger Rosenblatt
Shop ‘til you drop : consumer behavior and American culture
by Arthur Asa Berger

Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping by Paco Underhill
The Call of the Mall: A Walking Tour Through the Shopping Mall (Paperback)
by Paco Underhill (Author)

A Theory of Shopping by Daniel Miller

The Soul of the New Consumer: Authenticity – What We Buy and Why in the New Economy (Paperback

Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life (Paperback)

The Quest for Stuff.
James Twitchell, “Two Cheers for Consumerism.”
*Reading the Visual: Powerful Drug Advertising (cartoon) by Mike Lester .
Harry Flood, “Manufacturing Desire.”
*Steven Danner, “Confessions of a Shop-a-holic.”
Bill McKibben, “The $100 Christmas.”
*Reading the Visual: Bump from Adbusters.,2989,0321288467,00.html

First, a firm determination to live much more simply, as individuals, as families, as social groups; and in this way to stop short, or at least to slow down, the expanding spiral of social competition. Let us have men and women who will resolutely set themselves against the tide of our consumer society. Men and Women who, instead of feeling compelled to acquire everything that their friends have will do away with many of the luxuries which in their social setting have become necessities, but which the majority of humankind must do without. And if this produces surplus income, well and good; let it be given to those for whom the necessities of life are still luxuries beyond their reach

Paco Sightings… and Rubber Soled Shoes
Well, not only ‘Tis the Season to Cite Paco, but ‘tis also the season to share sightings.
I sighted Paco Underhill earlier this year at the Science of Shopping Conference that Envirosell put on. I even shook his hand! Here’s what he had to say about the current state of retail:

Consumerism epitomizes the capitalist practice of producing both environmental problems and false solutions, in order to profit at both ends (see earlier discussion). What is consumerism? According to the essay “Why Overcoming Consumerism”.

“We are the most voracious consumers in the world.”

NICE BREAKDOWN of the areas to think about with consuming

Shopping Matters
(one session introducing shopping, its role and its significance)
Shopping Culture Sharon Zukin: from Point of Purchase
Edward M. Tauber: “Why do People Shop?”
Optional Reading: Francis Buttle: “Shopping Motives Constructionist Perspective”
Shopping Culture
(two sessions focusing on the difference between ethnographic approaches which emphasize social interactions, practices and beliefs and Marxist and commodity-oriented analyses)
Michael Rowlands: “A Materialist Approach to Materiality”, from Materiality, D. Miller, ed.
Rachel Bowlby: “The Haunted Superstore”, from Carried Away, R. Bowlby
Optional reading: “Alienation and Everyday Life: Goffman Meets Marx at the Shopping Mall”

Session 3: Readings: Feb 20
Daniel Miller et al.: from Shopping, Place, and Identity
Sophie Kinsella: from Confessions of a Shopaholic
Optional reading: Jeniffer Scanlon: “Making Shopping Safe for the Rest of Us: Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic Series and its Readers” download from the link

Shopping Identities
(two sessions focusing on negotiated differences; for instance generational differences show that people have different attitudes towards shopping)

Peter Jackson: “Consumption and Identity: The Cultural Politics of Shopping”
Marilyn Halter: “From Community to Commodity: The Color of Money”, from Shopping for Identity, M. Halter
Sex and the City (HBO episode)
Session 5: Readings: March 6
Mary Douglas: “In Defense of Shopping” from The Shopping Experience, Pasi Falk and Collin Campbell, eds.
Douglas Coupland, from Shampoo Planet
Optional reading: Mary Douglas: “Why do People Want Goods?”, from Consumption, D. Miller, ed.

Shopping Genders
(two sessions focusing on the performative aspect of shopping; for instance, clothes communicate people’s allegiances also in terms of gender)
Eileen Fischer and Stephen Arnold: “Sex, Gender Identity, Gender Role Attitudes, and Consumer Behaviour”
Film: “Pretty Woman”
Harvey Roy Greenberg: “Rescrewed: Pretty Woman’s Co-Opted Feminism”

Session 7: Readings: March 2
Collin Campbell: “Shopping, Pleasure and the Sex War”, from The Shopping Experience, Pasi Falk and Collin Campbell, eds.
Paco Underhill: “Shop Like a Man” and “What Women Want”, from Why We Buy, P. Underhill
Optional reading: Mica Nava, “Modernity’s Disavowal: Women, the City and the Department Store”, from The Shopping Experience, Pasi Falk and Collin Campbell, eds.

Response moderated (Spam)
spendy's avatar

On top of not being properly educated regarding financial management, there are millions of people who consume needlessly because they identify with objects. My initial reaction in reading through this thread was that the original question was meant to focus more on the aspect of materialism – just the hunch I got. The answers took a spin though. Anyway…it seems that one of the largest problems with consumption (excessive consumption) is that people identify with the flashy handbags or $600 shoes. They feel defined by the things they own. Who would they be without the Rolex, Lotus, tummy tuck or 7 bedroom palatial home? It’s really kind of sick (and I say ‘kind of’ while rolling my eyes). I think more and more people are being trained by the media/trendsetters/celebrities/etc. to take stock in “nice things” and marry themselves to the notion of a status symbol. It’s all related to the ego. Anyone who thinks they are a different person without all the “things” they have acquired in life might need to take inventory. It’s crazy…the last question I answered lead me to basically the same answer – HAS ANYONE READ “A New Earth”? If not, cruise on over to eBay or Amazon and pick it up (which sounds funny…since this whole question was about consumption, I know). But it’s the best answer to this question! Author: Eckhart Tolle

itmustbeken's avatar

I dislike generalities of any kind.
Having recently been to Europe, Americans are not alone as a ‘consumer nation’. Take a trip to Dubai where gross consumerism is almost an art form.
Any country of prosperity have people who consume in obvious ways. 2,000+ years ago, Rome set the tone.

Response moderated
sundayBastard's avatar

Hmm?....I blame it all on TV. Propaganda in box. It’s all BS. And now the internet. Oh you must be selective where you aquire information and even then who knows.

Have you noticed all of these stupid pharmaceutical commercials. First, they tell you if you can’t sleep you must have restless leg syndrome or some other new imaginary problem. But do not worry because we have this DRUG that will fix you.

Now 2/3 of the country is on drugs. That later will find out were really bad for you(but they will also have a new drug for that too). Not to mention the fast food commercials that have 3 year olds up in arms(like 9mms and what not) lol

lorrissey's avatar

we’re being brainwashed by advertising.

gailcalled's avatar

@lor; No one is forcing us to watch the ads or act on them.

LostInParadise's avatar

The older I get the more appalled I am by our consumer mentality. I really don’t get it. I am not impressed by designer labels or large or expensive vehicles. I have no need for an iPod.

I am attracted by the volunatry simplicity movement. I highly recommend the book Your Money or Your Life. The idea behind the book is that the most valuable irreplaceable thing in life is time. The book asks you to list all the things you do and tralslate it into hours of labor. If you cut back on your work and spend less time commuting and other work related activities and gain more time, wouldn’t it be a net gain?

pekenoe's avatar

The consumer mentality of the USA is about to get a major shake up. (About time)

There is a substantial portion of the population that does not subscribe to the “consumer mentality” of gorge yourself. I am proud of my association with that group.

We (tightwads) will weather the coming storm with nary a shiver whilst the majority of the younger generation learn the lessons we learned from our parents who lived the great depression.

Johnny_Rambo's avatar

Everything humans do can be traced back to basic human nature and behavior. These are times of abundance even with the downturn in the economy. Never have so many had it so good throughout the world. Our vast richness is unprecedented in human history, we are simply playing along to the tune of ” these are the good times ”. Some adjustment will take place for a short time and we will return to those wonderful days of consumption soon enough. Da-dats all folks.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

Because our economy is a ponzi scheme, that requires constant growth or it will fail.

Garebo's avatar

It be best if we all live in caves and meditated and become self-actualized.
Then, the only time we would need to reach out is when we needed to fill our begging bowls.

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