Do people mistakenly prioritise money-making in their lives? #2

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.

22 thoughts on “Do people mistakenly prioritise money-making in their lives? #2

  1. That’s no use – if I’m questioning whether people actually do things differently to what they say they do on surveys, you can’t just quote another survey.
    .
    Well may the ABS say that people report shopping for a mere 28 minutes a day, but how much time do they spend looking at advertisements in magazines (those gorgeous pictures), imagining themselves into those pages and pages of luxurious new home interiors etc I think we have to agree with Jimmy Carter here, the lust and imagining is the same sin as the actual fornication!
    .
    I was suggesting that people would reject a description of themselves as prioritising money making, but that they dedicate quite a lot of time to buying/having things … so now I’m including thinking-about-having-things as part of that.
    .
    I should have said that I think you could be right that most people find a reasonable balance, but my concern is that the ranks of the dysfunctional are growing. Next time you’re in the HILDA data, please see if there was a question that asked if people think that we are becoming too materialistic.

    Like

  2. Well yes, the Australia Institute did do a survey some years ago in which they found that most people believed that other people are too materialistic. But this is just the pop version of SER, drawing on the same incorrect inferences from behaviour and the same ancient religious prejudices against wealth accumulation.

    Essentially, your hypothesis now depends on people telling lies about the hours they work, the time they spend shopping, and whether or not their relationships are intact, along with further lies about their life priorities.

    But I think it is SER making it all up, because they are yet to provide any verifiable evidence – just vague, unsubstantiated impressions.

    Like

  3. I didn’t say they were liars – in all their contradictions they believe they are telling the truth. My point is that people think differently about what they say in a survey and what they actually do, and that the artificiality of surveys makes inferences about their responses even more dicey. The data isn’t ‘hard’ data – it’s very soft. If you accept the ABS and HILDA surveys, you also have to accept the Australia Institute one.
    .
    Everybody thinks we’re more materialistic, clearly more and more of the workforce is in the ‘finance’ industries, we all have to think more about superannuation, tax etc than we ever did, and yet despite having so much more stuff, we have the medicated, the self-harmers, the anorexics … on and on goes the dysfunction. Perhaps we’re just better at naming things or more honest, but these things are here now and we don’t remember them as being so prevalent 40 years ago.
    .
    And one of the explanations we fall back on is the religious/ folk wisdom one: it’s easier for a camel …. but we also observe the lives of those we know: vague and unsubstantiated impressions, but not necessarily wrong, and worth voicing when dubious evidence for another point of view is being presented.

    Like

  4. “Perhaps we’re just better at naming things or more honest, but these things are here now and we don’t remember them as being so prevalent 40 years ago.”
    .
    I think “don’t remember” is the optimal phrase here. My belief is that there is a large biological component to things like happyness (don’t be introverted and neurotic!), and hence it isn’t surprising that what appear to be the most likely social predictors don’t explain much of the data. It also means people were probably similarly happy/unhappy 40 years ago, and 40 years before that too.
    .
    I also think that things like anorexia, alcoholism etc. have definitely been around that long (just think of Karen Carpenter, and the nurse that said “I wish I could be that thin” just before she died), although who knows whether the real prevalence ratios have changed a lot in that time, versus the reported ratios. My bet is not very much apart from a few groups who happen to be more noticeable (i.e., 18 years olds drinking to excess — the biggest drinkers, are, incidentally, not that age group). It is also the case that the “beer drinking stereotype” of Australians came from somewhere.
    .
    I guess there are a few things like “working a lot” left on your list, where we do have data. But even that isn’t a fair comparison. You need to compare like with like. It’s easy for me to work 50 hours a week, for example, because I just sit in front of computer most of the day. But my job was rare 40 years ago. If you really want to compare like with like, you need to compare the same professions.

    Like

  5. 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.

    Another possibility is that the people who work longer do so because they value their work/find meaning in their work, and are therefore more satisfied with themselves. If you’re dissatisfied with one aspect of your life, it’s often transferred to others.

    Like

  6. I do accept that the Australia Institute survey is probably right – though I always like to see poll findings replicated. However, it is asking a question about which the respondents can only have impressions, unlike questions about their own attitutudes, work habits, relationship status, or time spent shopping. So the Australia Institute probably has a reliable measure of an unreliable information source. There is also a long history of poll respondents giving more negative results about people in general. If you asked about their friends and family, I suspect the result would be different.

    I do think that the rise of mental illness is interesting and relevant. Most of it is just a classification issue, but in family breakdown we do have a plausible cause – mental health problems are twice as common in separated or divorced as in married people (though in some cases the problems may have contributed to the relationship breakdown). I am also intrigued by the idea that there has been a loss of resilience as lives have become easier. But there is no plausible evidence I have seen that this is due to a shift to prioritising money-making. Probably the reverse – marriage is now about personal fulfilment, and marriages that merely function as economic units fail.

    Like

  7. Andrew I think historically the stigma attached to many things (divorce, mental illness, etc..) kept the numbers hidden or forced people to avoid dealing with them. Lots of people stayed in very unhappy marriages in the 40-50s because divorce wasn’t an option (socially or financially). Also the mental disease correlations are a cause/effect tangle. Mental illness definitely causes poverty and relationship break-down. Poverty and/or relationship break-down may contribute to mental illness but is a much harder link to establish.

    Andrew I think you make the assumption that people act like rational agents and have decent information. That is they know what will optimise their happiness and they act accordingly.

    I take a complementary view which is that most people are rational and have ok information and they act to minimise their unhappiness. They know that poor people are much more likely to be unhappy so they strive to be not poor.

    Like

  8. M – I think assumptions of high levels of rationality or information are particularly unncessary in this case, since both instinct and social norms provide the broadly correct answer about general life priorities. Of course operationalising this knowledge is often difficult: choices are constrained by circumstances and there is imperfect knowledge of how the alternatives will play out – hence divorce, bad jobs, and assorted other regrets.

    Like

  9. Instinct! You weren’t so keen on instinct when we were discussing the right to found a family.
    .
    Eating is instinctive, and we all have fairly good information about what and how much we should eat. But what happens? Most of us manage OK and can handle a slight chocolate addiction, but more and more people apparently can’t. Seems there are a few other factors to consider. Instincts are rarely pure and never simple.

    Like

  10. Instincts don’t necessarily tell you how to do things the best way, but they do encourage you to do some things and not other things. Culture channels instincts, but it can rarely stop them entirely.

    I’m talking about literal instincts; not in the sense of intuitions.

    Like

  11. This is an interesting discussion.

    I have just put a post on a slightly related topic on my blog, namely whether we can use dollars to compare how much various life events affect well-being. Some might argue that even attempting to do this reflects increasing materialism, but I think we (economists anyhow) now have a greater tendency to question crude utilitarianism than in the past.

    Like

  12. “Culture channels instincts, but it can rarely stop them entirely.”
    .
    Exactly. And capitalism doesn’t want to stop instincts it wants to exploit them . We have instincts to eat, to seek security and fit in with a group etc which can be stimulated by advertising into never satisfied desires. Capitalism wants us to consume limitlessly, which many of us do. That’s why we will say we’re too materialistic – we know it’s true.
    .
    You might say you spent 28 minutes shopping, but howabout the 3 hours you spent on the internet ogling pictures of resorts in Bali, planning for your next holiday. All the same thing. There’s just so much time in a day and when we’re shopping or planning holidays or thinking about investments or home improvements etc we’re not involved in more convivial pursuits.
    .
    The materialism / prioritising money thing is interesting in relation to climate change. I think most people recognise that the best scientific advice to governments is that we have to reduce how much carbon we put into the atmosphere. They know it’s really serious. But they’re frozen by the prospect of a radical reduction in our resource-using lifestyle. Even when told by the most reputable experts that unless we change, our grandchildren will suffer dire consequences, we just can’t imagine making the change. How’s that for prioritising money?

    Like

  13. Dear Russell, no-one I have ever met suffers under an addiction to chocolate. I for example am considered addicted, I eat it almost every day, a couple times a day, but no-one so much as intimates that there is any negative effect.

    You are thinking of addiction to fat/sugar compounds.

    The distinction is not as trivial as you think. It is thanks to capitalism that I have the choices in chocolate that I do. I enjoy shopping for it, and usually do so with my wife. But if we are shopping for Madagascan chocolate truffles, is that really consumerism in the pejorative? I expect you would rather enjoy an hour so spent (ok rarely an hour, but one could stop for a coffee)!

    What about the looking up holiday information online? what do you mean anyway? Is this supposed to be a bad thing?

    I take it you don’t really doubt that our six weeks in France will be a convivial pursuit, so are you suggesting that we should do the six weeks but not the ogling? Guess what: thanks to capitalism, our ogling has been significantly reduced since we can rely on lots of different service providers to assist us and accelerate the process.

    And that example returns us to the original point – taking six weeks off work hardly sounds like prioritising money, but I can only do this because I have earned the money in the first place. Otherwise how can I convince the airline staff to send me there, etc?

    Like

  14. “You are thinking of addiction to fat/sugar compounds. ”
    .
    Patrick I can assure you there are no other fat/sugar compounds in my house other than chocolate, thus it is a chocolate addiction.
    .
    “But if we are shopping for Madagascan chocolate truffles, is that really consumerism in the pejorative”
    .
    Surely a rhetorical question.
    .
    So, being able to delegate even your holiday planning to ‘service providers’ is one of the blessings of overblown capitalism, for the fortunate, at least. Unfortunately I work amongst the hoi polloi and believe me, they spend a lot of time thinking about and planning ways of spending money. I was just making a point that Don Arthur has now better expressed on the other thread.
    .
    Bon voyage. Hope you have time to study the French economic model while you’re there.

    Like

  15. Russell – I think the best scientific advice to governments is that carbon is the stuff of life and carbon dioxide is plant food. The more the better. My grandchildren are more likely to suffer if we implement uneccessary measure to reduce how much carbon (sic) we put into the atmosphere. Man’s carbon emmissions are tiny compared to what nature is doing and nature’s own cycles can easily accomidate our small contribution.

    Like

  16. Johno – why would we base policy on your advice, rather than the advice from all the major reputable scientific organisations in the world?
    .
    But that’s not what I’m curious about – I want to know what happens when a society knows/feels it should do something, but also knows it’s not going to face up to the problem and actually do something. Is hope enough? Do we just avoid thinking about it? Are we just victims of our own materialism? How corrosive is that – to go on doing stuff we feel is wrong.

    Like

  17. Russell – Public opinion on this subject is a plausible case of the phenomenon you described earlier in the week, of people giving the socially acceptable answer but not genuinely believing the apocalyptic predictions.

    Also, even if people do believe the predictions it is a classic collective action problem, in which most people presumably understand their individual efforts, and indeed Australia’s national efforts, will make very little difference without action across the globe. Shirking is what we would expect, and what we observe.

    Like

  18. Andrew – could be, but even the “what we do in Australia won’t make any difference” argument is not far off from the “so it’s hopeless and we’ll go on doing this stuff, but feel it’s not quite right” attitude. It’s very disempowering.

    Like

  19. Andrew – if you haven’t seen it already, you might like an article in the journal Government and Opposition, April 09 – you’ve probably got electronic access. By some freakish coincidence I just picked it up to scan and find an article: “Rational irrationality and simulation in environmental politics – the example of climate change” by Mathew Humphrey.
    I’d never heard the phrase ‘cheap talk’ (and googling around I find it’s the name of an economics blog with interesting posts – http://cheeptalk.wordpress.com/ ), or Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality, or Schumpeter’s rational ignorance … and so on. Interesting. The author finally asks us to consider Baudrillard’s concept of simulation – a quagmire I wouldn’t venture into – not even for Madagascan chocolate truffles.
    There’s also a paper on the web by one Iain McLean “Climate change and UK politics” – his research finds that “feeling that something must be done is disconnected from feeling in favour of doing anything’.

    Like

  20. Personally I don’t think we should choose our personal response to climate change on the basis of what makes us feel empowered. Particularly when that feeling would be a potentially catastrophic illusion – since if we start to feel empowered by our mindlessly tokenistic gestures, we are presumably less likely to actually seek or work towards meaningful solutions.

    I’d prefer a more measurable policy metric.

    That said my personal response to climate change does just happen to be quite empowering – I am stockpiling ammunition and high-powered rifles for the day they come to take away my SUV. Double-bonus of being a natural hedge if climate change does turn out to be catastrophe they say, I will be prepared for the breakdown in social order and disintegration into anarchy that is inevitable in any decent leftist’s view of society faced with a crisis 😉

    Like

  21. Of course I didn’t actually say that our response to climate change should be on the basis of what makes us feel empowered. But feeling disempowered (because the situation seems hopeless – personally or on a broader scale) can lead to destructive behaviour – “it’s not going to make any difference so I might just as well eat this whole box of Madagascan chocolate truffles” (do they come in boxes, or tins?).
    .
    The crime isn’t so much owning an SUV as driving it. So you can keep it, we’ll just make you pay a lot more to run it. As for your reckless behaviour in FLYING to France ….
    .
    Do leftists think society will disintegrate if faced with a crisis? I always hoped the opposite would be true, that a dose of hardship might make people a bit less silly. Look how people faced up to The Blitz? I’d prefer not to think of New Orleans after the hurricane.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s