The National Digest

The Tsunami of Stuff we Have and Want is Based on Culture and Economics

In 1993, the photographer Peter Menzel travelled across the globe to capture our material world. In each country, he asked a family to empty their home and pose in front of their possessions. In Texas, the Skeen family held up their large illustrated Bible, surrounded by their Ford pickup truck, their mini-van and their dune buggy, their two TVs, multiple electrical appliances, shelves and storage cabinets filled with clothes. But even households in poorer countries revealed more things than one might expect. In Mali, the Natomo family had to make do with $250 a year but had a cassette player. In Ethiopia, the even poorer Getu family lived in a straw hut, yet owned an umbrella.

Possessions have been a central feature of human life since the beginning. For just as long, our pursuit of them has been condemned by philosophers and preachers, from Plato and Augustine to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx, all the way to environmentalists today. In this new book, the psychologist Bruce Hood takes a more generous, nuanced view. Things, he shows, do not simply hollow out or corrupt our self. They also help make us who we are, or who we want to be.

He takes his lead from the father of psychology, William James (1842–1910) who recognised that, in addition to a psychological and a social self, people also had a ‘material self’. Possessions enlarge our sense of self. In reverse, to lose a home to fire or one’s favourite armchair to a debt collector makes us feel as if we are shrinking. That is why downsizing is such a psychological challenge for many elderly people. Hood adds to this Jean-Paul Sartre’s insight that ‘a man is not the sum of what he has already, but… of what he could have’.

This book is most fascinating where it reports on psychological research and biological experiments to show just how hard-wired our material self is. In nurseries, three quarters of all quarrels between 18- and 30-month-olds are over the possession of toys. Laboratory tests have found that rats that received an exciting electric shock on pushing a lever became so addicted to this kind of pleasurable self-stimulation that they ignored food and water. In humans, the dopaminergic neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) are stimulated similarly by sex, drugs and shopping. The hunt for a new bag or watch triggers pleasure; once we own it and place it alongside the others, the pleasure recedes. One wonders about the neurons of people who loathe shopping.

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