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.”