Sharing possessions helps counteract loneliness

Tina Lowrey, Professeur of Marketing and L.J Shrum, Professeur de Marketing - September 21st, 2017
Sharing possessions helps counteract loneliness - ©Adobestock_Rawpixel

Loneliness and materialism are linked. In a recent study, Elodie Gentina, L.J. Shrum and Tina Lowrey investigate the materialistic coping strategies that can alleviate loneliness and its associated unethical behaviors. They find that adopting active strategies, like sharing possessions, leads to fewer unethical tendencies, while passive strategies, like product acquisition, can lead to more.  

Tina Lowrey ©HECParis

Tina M. Lowrey is professor of Marketing at HEC Paris. Before joining HEC Paris in 2013, she taught in several different universities in the U.S., including the University of (...)

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L.J Schrum

L. J. Shrum est professeur de marketing à HEC Paris. Il est titulaire d’un doctorat en communication, d’un master de publicité de l’Université de l’Illinois à Urbana-Champaign, (...)

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Loneliness is associated with materialism, with lonelier people tending to acquire products as a distraction from and substitute for social interactions. Considered a negative attribute, using materialism as a way to cope with loneliness can foster further unethical behaviors, such as illegal activities. L.J. Shrum notes, “We believed there are  situations where loneliness does not have to be detrimental, so we investigated loneliness coping strategies and how to mitigate the negative outcomes of loneliness.”

Coping with loneliness: active and passive strategies

Gentina, Shrum and Lowrey looked at how different people cope with loneliness through active and passive strategies. “People engage in active coping strategies to try to solve their problem directly,” Shrum explains. “For example, if they are lonely, they may attempt to connect with people and make themselves appear more desirable to others. One way they may do this is by sharing possessions, such as clothing or music.” He goes on to add: “Passive coping strategies don’t directly solve the problem but instead distract from it or substitute for lack of social connections. Product acquisition is one such example. Unfortunately, such passive coping strategies often don’t succeed at making lonely people feel less lonely.”

Sharing as a form of materialism

The team set out to determine whether there were any correlations between active and passive coping strategies and two types of materialism: materialism through sharing and materialism through product acquisition. “Sharing is not always thought of as materialism, but here we consider it as a way to use products to cope with threats to self-identity,” Shrum says. To test for correlations, the team created a questionnaire designed to measure levels of engagement with active and passive coping strategies, sharing and product acquisition, and ethical beliefs. This questionnaire was completed by 406 French adolescents, and then the data collected was analyzed using established scales and structural equation modelling. 


Materialism is generally thought of as a negative attribute, but this study shows that there are positive ways to use products

Alleviate loneliness through sharing possessions 

Shrum summarizes their results as follows: “Firstly, we found that people who are lonely engage in both active and passive coping strategies - the two are not mutually exclusive. So, we needed to determine individuals’ overriding coping tendencies. Once we had done this, we found that those who tend towards passive coping strategies exhibit high levels of product acquisition and do not engage in sharing. Conversely, those who tend towards active coping strategies share more and are less interested in product acquisition.”

Passive coping strategies and unethical behavior

When the team then looked at the coping strategies and how they related to ethical versus unethical behaviors, they saw similarly strong correlations. Those that shared more exhibited less unethical behavior. Those who coped with their loneliness through product acquisition exhibited more unethical behaviors such as smoking, drinking and illegal activities. “Materialism is generally thought of as a negative attribute, but this study shows that there are positive ways to use products,” Shrum concludes. “Through materialism as sharing, people may actually feel happier and thus less likely to engage in distracting unethical behaviors.”

Based on an interview with L.J. Shrum and Tina Lowrey on their paper “Coping with loneliness through materialism: strategies matter for adolescent development of unethical behaviors” (Journal of Business Ethics , 2017), co-authored with Elodie Gentina.

Practical Applications
Practical Applications

“This work has important implications for public policy,” Lowrey stresses. “Recommendations can be made so that teachers and parents are more aware of the markers of loneliness, particularly those exhibited through product acquisition. Steps can then be taken to alleviate loneliness, so children and adolescents are less likely to develop unethical behaviors.” 


Gentina, Shrum and Lowrey created a questionnaire that was completed by 409 adolescents (223 girls, 186 boys) from an urban area in northern France. They analyzed the data using structural equation modelling. The analysis revealed that there is a correlation between how people manage loneliness, either actively or passively, and their likelihood of engaging in unethical and risky behaviors such as smoking and drinking. Those who cope with loneliness through active strategies like sharing possessions are less likely to engage in unethical behaviors, whereas those who cope with loneliness through passive strategies like product acquisition are more likely to engage in unethical behaviors.