Materialistic media makes us less sympathetic to poor

Emphasis on materialism as a way to be happy makes us more inclined to be selfish
- Dr Rodolfo Leyva
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People who regularly watch television shows that glamourise fame, luxury, and the accumulation of wealth - like The Apprentice and Made in Chelsea -are potentially more likely to be in favour of punitive cuts to welfare payments, according to new LSE research.

Dr Rodolfo Leyva of LSE’s Department of Media and Communications studied the responses of 487 British adults aged 18-49 to a randomized-control web-survey experiment that was masked as a memory and attention test. The treatment group was exposed to 4 adverts for luxury products, 4 tabloid photos of famous celebrities showing off expensive goods, and 4 newspaper headlines of rags to riches stories. The control group was exposed to neutral stimuli such as adverts about the London underground, images of natural scenery and newspaper headlines about dinosaurs. In total, each group was intermittently shown 12 separate images - each for 5 seconds.

Both groups were then asked questions that measured, first, their attitudes towards wealth and success, government benefits, and impoverished people. And second, support for the governmental enactment of public policies, which according to the paper, “were modelled after actual UK government tax cuts, austerity measures, and welfare reforms that according to extensive policy research, have had detrimental effects on welfare institutions and beneficiaries.”

Results showed a significant treatment effect of momentary exposure to materialistic media on both anti-welfare attitudes and support for anti-welfare policies. This suggests that just 1 intermittent minute of attention to common and typical materialistic media messages caused a significant increase in anti-welfare sentiments.

Furthermore, participants were also asked about the frequency of their viewing of nine TV shows, such as The Apprentice, X-Factor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Made in Chelsea, as well as their reading habits concerning five daily tabloid newspapers which regularly feature stories on wealthy celebrities, and ten magazines, such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, GQ and Esquire that advertise luxury products. Results showed those who also regularly watched shows such as The Apprentice and X-Factor, are much more likely to hold “stronger materialistic and anti-welfare attitudes than lighter consumers of these shows.”

Dr Leyva’s paper, Experimental insights into the socio-cognitive effects of viewing materialistic media messages on welfare support, is published in the latest edition of Media Psychology.

The paper says: “In advanced market societies, cultural representations and endorsements of materialism, such as the promotion and glorification of fame, fortune, and conspicuous consumption, are particularly endemic in and promulgated by commercial media. Indeed, the ubiquity of materialistic media messages (MMMs) is beneficial if not critical to the gross domestic product growth of contemporary capitalist economies, given that this ubiquity helps stimulate consumption.

“Yet irrespective of the positive economic contributions of MMMs, frequent exposure to them is being increasingly connected to several troubling trends and adverse effects. For example, UK psychology studies have found that internalising the media-culture ideals of materialism increases body dissatisfaction in women and decreases well-being in children. In a similar vein, US media studies show that heavy consumption of MMMs is related to increased levels of stress, life dissatisfaction, and anxiety.”

It adds that this is the first study to examine the potential broader socio-political implications in terms of attitudes to welfare policy, and the first to empirically indicate that materialism and anti-welfare orientations operate through associated and contiguous cognitive-affective mechanisms.

Dr Leyva commented: “Results suggest that momentary exposure to and regular consumption of materialistic media messages (MMMs) induces stronger materialism and anti-welfare attitudes.

“The Apprentice, Keeping Up With The Kardashians and X-Factor are replete with MMMs that are engineered to absorb audiences into the glamorous world of wealth and celebrities and thus have a strong potential to function as cultivators of materialistic values and attitudes.

"Humans are inherently materialistic but also very social and communal. The way this is expressed depends on our culture. If there is more emphasis on materialism as a way to be happy, this makes us more inclined to be selfish and anti-social, and therefore unsympathetic to people less fortunate.

“This study can contribute to explanations for why the UK public’s support for welfare to aid the impoverished and unemployed has been decreasing during a time of rapidly growing wealth disparities, living costs, and rates of precarious and underemployment.”