As the holiday shopping season gears up—and millions of us rush out to buy the latest electronic doodads—The Onion runs a satirical, yet chillingly accurate take on consumerism:
“The new device is an improvement over the old device, making it more attractive for purchase by all Americans,” said Thomas Wakefield, a spokesperson for the large conglomerate that manufactures the new device. “The old device is no longer sufficient. Consumers should no longer have any use or longing for the old device.”
Added Wakefield, “The new device will retail for $395.”
“Its higher price indicates to me that it is superior, and that not everyone will be able to afford it, which only makes me want to possess it more,” said Tim Sturges, owner of the old device, which he obtained 18 months ago when it was still the new device. “I feel a strong urge to purchase the new device. Owning the new device will please me and improve my daily life.”
Yep, that about sums up the hedonic treadmill: we get used to new material goods far too quickly to derive more than fleeting pleasure from them. And more generally, as incomes rise, expectations rise in lockstep: objects of desire quickly become normal, even dull. That’s one reason why, once income levels in a society are high enough to provide for basic needs (and perhaps a bit of luxury), rising material wealth has little effect on people’s sense of wellbeing.
What’s strange is that this experience— being infatuated with a toy or gadget for a few hours or days, then quickly finding that it’s lost its luster—is essentially universal. Every child I’ve known has had felt that way about birthday or holiday gifts; I certainly did. And yet it surprises us every time. Consumer culture may simply prey on a human blind spot: our inability to see, with clarity, the things that actually make us happy. Just so, we’re often blind to the fact that many of the consumer products we crave are mostly “positional goods“—that is, they’re desirable more as markers of social status (high income, good taste) than in themselves. We think we’re buying a useful object. What we’re really buying is a status symbol.
I’m far from immune form all this: I’m tickled with the nifty new music player I got for my birthday, and got a little thrill when a colleague seemed a little covetous of it. But by next Christmas it’s likely to feel like old hat. (It’s sad to realize that The Onion is actually an instruction manual for my life.)
The photo is of an actual item for purchase.