Materialism and Social Comparison among Adolescents

Article excerpt

Materialism and social comparison are important issues, especially in a Chinese context, and especially amongst adolescents. In this paper a theoretical model of the endorsement of materialistic values and social comparison by adolescents was proposed and tested. A survey of secondary school students in Hong Kong revealed normative peer influence and peer communication were positive predictors of social comparison with friends. In addition, motivation for advertisement viewing was a positive predictor of social comparison with media figures. Social comparison with friends and with media figures were both positive predictors of materialism. The implications are discussed, with recommendations for further research.

Keywords: consumer socialization, group and interpersonal processes, cognitive development, materialism, social comparison, adolescents.

The adoption of materialistic values by young people affects the balance between the private and public choices that people make throughout life (Goldberg, Gorn, Peracchio, & Bamossy, 2003). In our opinion, materialism is a negative value because it works against interpersonal relationships and is negatively associated with happiness and subjective well-being (Kasser, 2002).

A central issue in studying materialism, especially amongst adolescents, is that of social comparison with friends and media figures. Adolescents need to formulate a new identity and to establish autonomy from their parents. They become more independent in decision making. As a result, adolescents seek personal relationships that give value to their perspectives and ensure that their feelings are understood.

Studying materialism and social comparison in a Chinese culture involves a context quite different from that of Western culture. As hierarchy is legitimate and conformity to group norms is acceptable in Confucian tradition (Wong & Ahuvia, 1998), social comparison of goods as a means to locate an individual's position in the social hierarchy is therefore encouraged. Hu (1944) analyzed the Chinese concept of face into lien (or moral face) that represents one's moral character, and mianzi (or social face) that describes status and success. The value of mianzi (or social face) will encourage the owning of symbolic goods to improve personal visibility within the social hierarchy (Wong & Ahuvia). The collective characteristic of Chinese culture encourages the use of material possessions to identify associates for establishing long-term social relations. Both of these contribute to the establishment of a materialistic value orientation.

The specific objectives of this study were to ascertain the extent to which adolescents in Hong Kong endorse materialistic values, to ascertain whether materialism changes with age during adolescence, and to examine the influences of interpersonal communication and media exposure on adolescents' engagement in social comparison and their endorsement of materialistic values.



Materialism has been conceptualized as a personality trait encompassing possessiveness, envy and lack of generosity (Belk, 1985). Others see materialism as a chronic focus on lower needs for material comfort and physical safety over higher order needs (Inglehart, 1993). In this study, materialism was defined as a set of attitudes which regard possessions as symbols of success, where possessions occupy a central part of life, and which include holding the belief that more possessions lead to more happiness.

A model to predict materialism was constructed based on John's (1999) model of the consumer socialization of children, Kasser, Ryan, Couchman, and Sheldon's (2004) model of materialistic value orientation, and the concept of social comparison. According to the model of Kasser et al., consumers (including adolescents) develop a materialistic value orientation through experiences that induce feelings of insecurity, and from exposure to materialistic models and values. …