Material Possessions As Coping Resources Under Income Inequality

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Amy Dalton, Anirban Mukhopadhyay

Rising income inequality is taking its toll on the subjective wellbeing (SWB) of consumers across the globe. We propose that income inequality’s damaging effect on SWB can be offset if consumers redirect attention from their accumulated material wealth to their most cherished and favored possessions. We have collected preliminary data in 10 countries that show that favorite possessions function as buffers against income inequality whether income inequality is operationalized as subjective, individual-level perceptions or as objective, country-level differences. To follow-up, we are designing a series of laboratory studies to test competing hypotheses, possible boundary conditions, and the underlying psychological mechanism for this effect. We hypothesize that the reason focusing on favorite possessions protects SWB is because the value of favorite possessions is idiosyncratically-derived and thus incommensurable with the value of other people’s possessions. Thus, the feelings of relative deprivation that arise under high income inequality should subside among consumers who focus on their favorite possessions. This should in turn mitigate the negative effect of income inequality on SWB. We further propose to design a longitudinal intervention that trains consumers to attend to their favorite things, and we will test its benefits after a delay.

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