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How psychological biases hinder our ability to overcome ‘conspicuous consumption’

The repurposing of secondhand goods, with rare exceptions, confer little social status. In fact, such repurposing has become less popular in recent years.

Our preferences for particular possessions are often irrational, the result of psychological essentialism.
REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

To get our conspicuous consumption under control — something we must do if we’re going to have a healthy, sustainable planet — we’ll need to overcome several psychological biases that currently undermine our willingness to fully embrace recycling and reuse, argues an intriguing commentary published recently in the journal Nature.

“In the same way that conspicuous consumerism was encouraged at the turn of the twentieth century to redress the imbalance between overproduction and demand, policies must now encourage conspicuous non-consumption and reuse as the new signifiers of self-worth,” writes Bruce Hood, a professor of developmental psychology in society at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

But that’s going to be difficult, as the repurposing of secondhand goods, with rare exceptions, confer little social status. In fact, such repurposing has become less popular in recent years.

“We value old items for their sentimentality, nostalgia or connection with the famous,” says Hood. “But not as much as we once did: the Antique Collectors’ Club’s Annual Furniture Index, based on a mixture of auction and retail prices of 1,400 typical items, has been on the slide since reaching a peak in 2002.”

Exclusivity and authenticity

For tens of thousands of years, Hood points out, humans have viewed possessions as extensions of themselves, as evidenced by the objects found in ancient graves. Humans also use their possessions “to signal our identity and status to others. 

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Our preferences for particular possessions are often irrational, he adds, the result of psychological essentialism — “a belief that identity is conferred by a metaphysical dimension, an essence that cannot be removed, filtered, eradicated or repurposed by physical means.”

It’s why we ascribe an extraordinarily high value to an object simply because of its previous ownership (such as the leather jacket worn by Harrison Ford in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), or why we drastically devalue an object when we learn that it is a forgery (such as an oil painting of Mary Todd Lincoln).

Psychological essentialism also presents “a formidable obstacle to accepting — as we must — that all materials can and should be reused or recycled,” Hood says.

Why? Because it leads us to be psychologically biased to value exclusivity and authenticity, which most recycled items do not have.

Writes Hood:

The pleasure one derives from a Rolex watch or an Armani suit is largely psychological and is based on perceived desirability rather than on sensory or functional pay-off. Designer brands are esteemed beyond their quality. By definition, a luxury item (the word coming rom the Latin luxus, meaning excess) generates value from its exclusivity. Lobsters and oysters command high prices today, but in the eighteenth century, before refrigeration allowed them to be shipped to cities, they were the food of poor fishing communities.

Authenticity also matters. Reproduced items or fake brands are valued less, even though they can be indistinguishable from an original. And we cannot always fool ourselves. One study showed that individuals who wore what they believed to be fake designer sunglasses felt sullied and were more inclined to dishonesty, even when the glasses were in fact expensive originals.

From ‘brand new’ to ‘brand renewed’

To overcome these psychological biases, says Hood, “we need to make having fewer things and using recycled goods more socially desirable.”

Currently, only a few retailers sell items such as purses and bags that have been ingeniously ‘upcycled’ from low-value, discarded goods such as cement sacks and tyres. Instead of being niche products, such items should be status symbols. Frugal innovation must become ubiquitous, not just the preserve of poor nations or of times past.

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The more recycled material used in an object, the more this quality should be advertised (and rewarded with tax breaks and other market levers). In the same way that food products must declare their constituents and additives, manufactured goods should indicate the extent of their recycled content …

This might start to shift attitudes away from the appeal of the ‘brand new to appreciating the value of the ‘brand renewed’ — something that will be essential in a sustainable, circular, economy.

FMI: You can read Hood’s commentary on the Nature website.