Do we substitute material possessions for love? That’s the question explored by a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which also asks if the opposite is true: do people who get lots of love and acceptance from others value their possessions less?
The idea that materialism is linked to comfort isn’t new, but researchers from the University of New Hampshire and Yale University wanted to understand more concretely how people gauge the monetary value of their belongings in relation to how loved and secure they feel. (More on Time.com: I’m Not Goofing Off. I’m Getting Inspired!)
So researchers asked 185 study participants, average age 35, to complete a couple of exercises. First, they asked half the group to recall a time when they felt supported and cared for; the other half were asked to think about a fun experience, such as eating at a really great restaurant. Then, both groups were asked to put a money value on the blankets currently on their beds. The group who recalled a good dining experience valued their blankets at $173.30 on average, but the group who had thought about an experience of being loved valued their bedspreads at a paltry $33.38.
“People value possessions, in part, because they afford a sense of protection, insurance, and comfort,” lead researcher Edward Lemay, assistant professor of psychology at University of New Hampshire, said in a statement. “But what we found was that if people already have a feeling of being loved and accepted by others, which also can provide a sense of protection, insurance and comfort, those possessions decrease in value.” (More on Time.com: Why People Reject Things That Keep Them Safe)
Just to be sure there wasn’t something about the particular blankets or participants that made the valuations different, the researchers conducted a second experiment involving 98 business and psychology students with an average age of 21. Two researchers each went to three classes. The first researcher asked students to fill out a questionnaire relating to emotional attachment — the Experiences in Close Relationships scale — and one of two word-association surveys, which primed participants with words that were either emotional descriptors like dependent and hug or generally positive words like happy and cheerful.
Afterward, the second researcher handed out pens with the University logo on them. He explained that the pens were theirs to keep, but that they could also sell them for anywhere between $0.25 and $9.75. He asked students to mark down the price at which they would be willing to part with their new pen. He then aggregated the highest value at which the students chose to keep the pen. Students who filled out the word-association surveys with relationship-based words valued their pens at an average $3.23 — nearly a dollar less than the positive-words cohort, who valued their pens at $4.11.
The researchers say their results may help explain a host of everyday situations in which people have difficulty letting go of possessions. “These findings seem particularly relevant to understanding why people may hang onto goods that are no longer useful. They also may be relevant to understanding why family members often fight over items from estates that they feel are rightfully theirs and to which they are already attached. Inherited items may be especially valued because the associated death threatens a person’s sense of personal security,” Lemay said.