Public Affairs

Media materialism

How might reality television influence your concerns for the less fortunate? Rodolfo Leyva from the Department of Media and Communications in the London School of Economics writes.

At first glance, the question above sounds like it belongs on a BuzzFeed list of top ten dubious pop-psychology studies. The answer to it, however, is based on a solid, growing, and uniquely interdisciplinary body of theoretical and empirical research that spans across various subfields in media studies and psychology. Naturally, I can only briefly summarise this research, and hope that my colleagues don’t get too annoyed with me for overly condensing their rigorous scholarship.

Firstly, I need to define the concept of materialism, which here refers to a set of values and attitudes that orient individuals to valorise, seek, and be preoccupied with acquiring wealth, possessions, prestige, and status. Moreover, by reality television, I’m thus only referring to ‘reality-based’ shows that are replete with materialistic media messages (MMMs) i.e. media representations and endorsements of affluence, fame, image, status, interpersonal competition, and conspicuous consumption. Specific examples include shows about aspiring business people (e.g. The Apprentice), wealthy famous people’s lives (e.g. Keeping Up with The Kardashians), and musical talent competitions (e.g. X-Factor).

Accordingly, extensive research shows that single instances of media consumption can prime and heighten the accessibility of relevant mental constructs (i.e. schemas) – which can then be gradually influenced by what viewers are distinctly watching. Chronic attention to prevalent and conceptually congruent media representations, therefore, increases the probability of salient, recurring, and affective aspects of these representations significantly inflecting a viewer’s related conceptions of reality and corresponding value, attitudinal and behavioural schemata. This frequent attention also increases the activation potential and automaticity of said schemata. Following this theorising, several studies suggest that the media cultivation of materialism in people’s minds, is, in effect, a linear function of frequent exposure to positive MMMs, which foments and strengthens schemata that are valenced in line with those messages.

Correspondingly, experimental psychology studies have found that even momentary and subliminal exposure to materialism-related images (e.g. pictures of money) and language (e.g. words such as ‘buy’ and ‘expensive’), can simultaneously trigger anti-social responses and inhibit prosociality. Relatedly, developmental studies have linked the rise in the dissemination of and consequent exposure to MMMs over the past 30 years to generational increases in self-interestedness and desires to be rich and famous; and decreases in empathy and communitarian oreintations. One major explanation for all this is that materialism schemata are tied to what are referred to as ‘self-enhancement’ dispositions, which when triggered by environmental cues, orient people towards non-generosity, envious sentiments, and the attainment of status and possessions. These dispositions are psychologically incompatible and in relative conflict with ‘self-transcendence’ dispositions, which focus on empathy, altruism, and communality. Both self-transcendence and self-enhancement dispositions are believed to be innate human aspects, but the ways and extent to which these are represented, abstracted, and prioritised in people’s minds as well as behaviourally expressed, are mostly shaped by sociocultural information. Therefore, market societies, which endorse, reward, and communicate sociocultural representations of self-enhancement dispositions substantially more so than self-enhancement dispositions, can generate a sort of developmental seesaw effect.

Hence, in tandem, all this research suggests that constant exposure to MMMs, such as through watching the types of tv shows mentioned earlier, can subliminally cultivate and automatically activate people’s selfishness, and deactivate their altruism and empathy. Of course, MMMs in other mediums including magazines and film, also contribute to this process. So, to quickly answer the title question, if awash in a mass media sea of wealth, fame and conspicuous consumption, an individual’s concern for the well-being of the impoverished and less fortunate may simply get drowned out.

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