There is a general trend for consumer goods considered luxuries to become thought of as necessities. Although the luxury/necessity distinction is central to the fields of marketing and economics, little research has examined the perception of necessity as a psychological phenomenon. Three studies examined the relationship of the perceived necessity of a variety of consumer goods to goals, values, and insecurity. In Study 1, the number of goods considered necessities as opposed to luxuries correlated negatively with intrinsic and positively with extrinsic goal pursuit. In Study 2, this pattern generalized to the distinction between needs and wants, the extent to which participants reported needing their possessions, and to materialistic values. In Study 3, the perception of necessity mediated the relationship between anxious attachment and materialism, suggesting that needing consumer products has in part a basis in interpersonal insecurity. In turn, it may facilitate materialistic consumption. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
In 1989, roughly 1% of the U.S. population used a cell phone. By 2009, cell phone usage had reached nearly complete saturation at 97%. Most strikingly, in 2009 roughly half of those users considered the cell phone a necessity (Pew Research, 2009). In 20 years, a technological innovation largely unknown became something that many people did not think they could live without. The cell phone’s meteoric rise from obscurity to necessity may be a drastic example. Nevertheless, it captures well the more general phenomenon by which consumer goods have the potential to become woven into our lives to such an extent that we think we cannot live without them. Televisions and computers, over about 60 and 40 years, respectively, are also now considered necessities by half the population. The automobile, which has been mass produced for consumers for roughly a century, is considered a necessity by nearly 90% of people. For these and other consumer products, such as air conditioning, clothes dryers, and microwaves, Pew Research has documented a steady positive linear trend between 1973 and 2006 in the proportion of people considering them necessities as opposed to luxuries, suggesting that necessity is, in part, a matter of perception.
There is little research on the perceived necessity of consumer goods in the consumer behavior literature. However, necessity is one of the primary dimensions on which people think about consumption, and perhaps the most fundamental concern in consumer behavior (Pincus, 2004). The purpose of the current research is to examine the psychological correlates of this perception of necessity, in goal striving, values, and interpersonal security.
In general, psychological needs are viewed as immutable and universal (e.g., Maslow, 1943). The Pew Research data show that for consumer goods, the perception of necessity is more malleable. Economists often define necessity in terms of the extent to which demand for the good is affected by changes in price. Necessities are defined as relatively inelastic, meaning that demand changes less than proportionally in response to increases in price. The closer that the price elasticity of a good is to zero, the less sensitive consumer demand is to price. In fact, the one empirical study that measured the perceived necessity of consumer goods demonstrated that price elasticities correlated well with the perception of necessity, such that the more inelastic the good, the more greatly participants rated the goods as necessities as opposed to luxuries (Kemp, 1998).
There is reason to believe, however, that psychological factors play a role in the perception of necessity. At any given time, some people will consider a good a necessity and others a luxury. For instance, people are roughly evenly split as to whether the cell phone,There is reason to believe, however, that psychological factors play a role in the perception of necessity. At any given time, some people will consider a good a necessity and others a luxury. For instance, people are roughly evenly split as to whether the cell phone,television, and home computer are necessities. Furthermore, although the general trend for most goods is a steady increase in the perception of necessity, a slight reversal of this pattern was observed in 2009, following the last economic recession. This may seem counterintuitive at first. In a weak economy, people would likely have more unmet needs, and thus might consider more things necessities. However, Pew suggested that the economic recession may have prompted some people to reevaluate their priorities. In so doing, they may have determined that some consumer goods were not so necessary after all. Consistent with this perspective, it was the respondents with higher incomes that considered more things necessities.
The psychological mechanisms that may underlie the perception of necessity are well captured by Juliet Schor (1999) in The Overspent American. Through the process of hedonic adaptation (e.g., Kahneman, 1999), material goods that once brought us pleasure no longer do—they simply become part of our baseline for material well-being. Kemp (1998) demonstrated that getting something perceived as a luxury increased with positive affect, whereas getting something perceived as a necessity merely eliminated negative affect. On the hedonic treadmill (Brickman & Campbell, 1971), ever-increasing levels of consumption over the long run are required to maintain the same standards of wellbeing. The treadmill effect is exacerbated through social comparison—or the phenomenon of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” If everyone gets wealthier, then no one does relative to anyone else (e.g., Hagerty, 2000). Material goods, in particular, are subject to these effects (Carter & Gilovich, 2010).
Taken together, these findings suggest that the perception of necessity may be linked to goal pursuit. According to self-determination theory (see Ryan & Deci, 2000, for a review), people have innate needs for autonomy, competence, and self-control. When people feel free to pursue goals they value intrinsically, they are happier and more satisfied when they accomplish them. Research demonstrates, however, that the pursuit of extrinsic goals, such as those for financial success and popularity, is more likely controlled by external forces, such as social comparison motives and the need to be looked on favorably by others (e.g., Sheldon, Ryan, Deci, & Kasser, 2004). The pursuit of such goals may facilitate material consumption. If people consider more consumer goods necessities they may work harder to make more money in order to buy them. As such, they may value extrinsic goals for financial success (e.g., Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996). Likewise, they may consider more things necessities in order to achieve extrinsic goals for image enhancement and popularity. On the other hand, those who value intrinsic goals, such as self-acceptance and community, may be less likely to consider consumer goods necessities. For one, consumer goods are less likely to aid in the fulfillment of these goals. Those who do not consider consumer goods necessities may focus on intrinsic goals because they have little reason to pursue extrinsic goals.
Extrinsic goal pursuit is closely linked to the development of materialistic values (see Kasser, Ryan, Couchman, & Sheldon, 2004, for a review). Materialists place a great emphasis on the acquisition and consumption of material goods (Richins & Dawson, 1992). It was hypothesized that perceived necessity may facilitate such consumption in materialistic individuals. Extrinsic goals are widely thought to be opposed to intrinsic goals. Extrinsic pursuits undermine the ability to engage in more intrinsically satisfying activities, such as building community and social relationships (e.g., Grouzet et al., 2005). This is one reason for the welldocumented finding that materialists are less happy (Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996; Richins & Dawson, 1992; Sirgy, 1998). Beyond our basic biological needs for food, shelter, and safety, the need for social connectedness is one of the few psychological motives thought to be fundamental and universal (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; DeWall & Bushman, 2011). And yet extrinsically motivated individuals are less likely to pursue this basic need (cf. Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002).
One reason may be that both extrinsic goal pursuit (Kasser, Ryan, Zax, & Sameroff, 1995) and materialistic values (Rindfleisch, Burroughs, & Denton, 1997) are rooted in interpersonal insecurity. Insecurity is typically measured by attachment style, which is thought to depend in large part on early experiences with caregivers (e.g., Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004). An insecure upbringing and inconsistent caregiver attention are primary contributors to an anxious attachment style. On the other hand, neglect and a lack of caregiver attention can result in avoidant attachment style (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004).