Commenter Russell isn’t convinced by my survey evidence that the vast majority of people don’t rate making money as a top life priority. He argues that people may not tell the truth when asked questions in a survey. Maybe they don’t; maybe they don’t even recognise the truth about themselves.
But I still think my hypothesis is by far the more plausible one, and that the Schwartz/Eckersley/Russell [SER] hypothesis has no evidence beyond inferring attitudes from the consumer behaviour of other people.
Even if we start at this theoretical level, the SER thesis seems to me to be immediately in trouble. It requires that the desire for material things over-rides some hardwired aspects of human nature, such as the desires for intimacy, love, and companionship. While I imagine this is possible in some small number of individuals, it is hard to see how the ephemeral pleasures of shopping could cause a mass over-ride of the kind required.
Consistent with this theory, the behavioural evidence does not support the SER thesis. If it was true we would expect to see increasing amount of time spent shopping. But the ABS time use survey shows no change between 1992 and 2007. In each survey, people spent an average 28 minutes a day purchasing goods and services. Looking at the survey in more detail, those who spend most time shopping are the elderly and the unemployed, not the people with money to spend. 28 minutes a day on average is hardly a life consumed by a misplaced priority.
But don’t people work longer hours? Some people do, but both the proportion of the labour force working more than 50 hours per week and average full-time hours have been trending down since 2000, with the average full-time employee spending 39.4 hours per week at work during 2007. It’s not exactly an all-consuming workload.
One of the supposed transmission mechanisms for long work hours having negative effects is that people neglect their families. Some of course do, but the latest HILDA report again finds no evidence of higher relationship disruption among this group – indeed, it is lower than for people who work fewer hours, though 41-49 hours per week seems to be ‘optimal’ for relationship stability. The higher income from working longer hours may protect relationship stability.
The argument that this kind of lifestyle makes people unhappy or depressed fails at the basic level of not being able to provide the necessary correlations (even putting aside the question of causality; excessive emphasis on material goods could be a symptom of other life failures rather than a cause). All the happiness research shows that on average wealthier people are happier than poorer people, contrary to what the consumerist hypothesis would predict. Poor people are twice as likely to have mental health problems as high SES people.
To me, theories of human nature, self-reported attitudes, and objectively reported behaviour all line up: that the vast majority of people understand and try to put into practice a life that balances material and emotional well-being.