Chronic self-doubters tend to be more materialistic, study shows

August 08, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio - People with chronic self-doubt may bemore likely than others to define personal success by having thebiggest house on the block or a new luxury car.

A new study found that people with enduring feelings ofself-doubt scored higher than others on a measure of materialism- the tendency to value monetary success and materialpossessions over other goals in life. Specifically, they were morelikely to believe that success was defined by what a personowns.

"Feelings of self-doubt can sendpeople looking for meaning in theirlives, with a goal toward boosting theirself-worth," said Robert Arkin,co-author of the study and professor ofpsychology at Ohio State University.

"If they aren't deriving a sense ofself-worth from other parts of theirlives, they may feel that owning a lot ofthings proves they are successful."

Arkin conducted the study with LinChiat Chang, a graduatestudent in psychology at Ohio State. The study was published ina recent issue of the journal Psychology & Marketing.

Arkin said research in countries around the world show thatpeople tend to believe that materialism is a weakness of insecurepeople who doubt their self-worth.

However, he said there has not been much evidence to confirmthat.

In one study, Arkin and Chang had 416 undergraduate studentscomplete a variety of measures that examined their levels ofself-doubt, several forms of materialism, and other psychologicaltraits.

The results showed that people who were chronic self-doubtersscored higher in materialism. In particular, they scored higher ona measure of materialism in which people define success in termsof what they own. For example, they were more likely to agreewith statements such as "I like to own things that impress people"and "The things I own say a lot about how well I'm doing in life."

The link between self-doubt and materialism was confirmed in asecond study that found that inducing feelings of self doubt couldincrease materialistic tendencies in those with chronic self-doubt.This study involved 95 undergraduates - half who scored high inchronic self-doubt and half who scored low.

Participants were asked to memorize words by relating thesewords to their own personality and experiences. Half the subjectsmemorized self-doubt words (insecure, doubtful, uncertain, etc.)while the other half memorized words unrelated to self-doubt(inside, double, unicorn, etc.). Prior studies have shown that thistechnique increases feelings of insecurity in those who memorizedoubt-related words. In this study, participants were askedabout their current state of mind regarding materialism, ratherthan their long-term feelings.

Results showed that when participants memorized doubt-relatedwords, those who scored higher on chronic self-doubt showedsignificantly higher levels of current materialism than those whodid not have chronic self-doubt.

But among those who memorized the unrelated words, there wasno difference in immediate feelings of materialism between thechronic self-doubters and the confident participants.

"For those people who are chronically insecure, materialismseems to be a coping mechanism that they use when they are putin a situation that makes them doubtful about themselves," Arkinsaid.

Arkin said it is noteworthy that self-doubters score high on a typeof materialism that equates possessions with success.

"Chronic self-doubters are not interested in possessions becausethey bring happiness or because they simply like owning a lot ofthings," Arkin said. "They are interested in possessions becauseof their meaning, the status they confer. They believe theirpossessions demonstrate success."

That's why materialism can be seen as a coping response forpeople who are uncertain about their identity, he said.

The results also showed that materialism is related to anothertype of uncertainty - anomie. While chronic self-doubters tend tobe uncertain about their own abilities and identity, those whoscore high in anomie tend to feel uncertainty related to theirsociety and culture. They tend to feel rootless and believe societylacks clear guidelines for behavior.

But whether a person suffers from anomie or self-doubt, Arkinsaid materialism is a poor coping mechanism. Other studies haveshown that a materialistic orientation to life is linked with poorpsychological functioning and lower life satisfaction.

"The cycle of materialistic pursuits is disappointing and exhaustingin the long run and can make people perpetually unhappy," Arkinsaid.

It is better to find other goals in life and find areas where one canexcel without resorting to material possessions as proof ofsuccess, he said.
Contact: Robert Arkin, (614) 292-2726;
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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