A relational antidote to over-consumption
lundi 23 août 2021 à 04:00
How can we reduce consumption and save the planet ? For decades experts documented, and raised awareness, about the unsustainability of our consumption patterns. Despite these efforts and growing public concern, reducing consumption proved difficult to achieve, even in prosperous societies. A recent study provides new hope by showing that people’s need to consume is partly associated to individuals’ poor social experience. Investing in social relations can be an antidote to over-consumption.
Social comparisons, that is people’s tendency to compare to others, are one of the main drivers of consumption. Over-consumption arises, at least in part, from people’s fear to miss-out, to be inadequate, to fall behind in the social ladder. This fear creates formidable consumers because the possibilities to establish comparisons are virtually infinite and independent from individual position in the income distribution.
Figures indicate that social comparisons occupy an important share of people’s life. Moreover, the extensive use of online social networks, which provide cheap windows over alternative lifestyles, facilitates social comparisons. We know, for instance, that Europeans tend to compare socially at least once a day , and that social comparisons are likely on the rise. A cross-country survey  documented that nearly 70% of Chinese people and 50% of Americans “feel under a lot of pressure to be successful and make money”, while nearly 75% of Europeans think that social comparisons are important.
Some studies suggest that social comparisons are an unchangeable trait of human beings, rooted in human evolution and in the brain’s biology. For instance, social comparisons have been identified among primates, and studies from neuroscience found that social comparisons influence the reward processing mechanism of the brain, thus creating a sort of addiction to comparisons. Shall we surrender to our nature and second the need to consume to keep up with the Joneses ? Not necessarily. A recent study, based on the analysis of approximately half a million interviews from nationally representative surveys, showed that social relations are negatively associated to social comparisons . In particular, people with thriving social lives are not affected by social comparisons. Conversely, isolated people are more likely to be concerned about whether they earn more or less than others. In sum, having rich and satisfactory social lives is an antidote to one of the main drivers of over-consumption because social relations make people less sensitive to social comparisons.
Reducing consumption is possible by promoting social relations — through, for instance, public transport and traffic-free areas – and regulating the sources of social comparisons, such as advertising and the use of online social network. And now, take a break and reach out to your friends.
Clark AE, Senik C. Who Compares to Whom ? The Anatomy of Income Comparisons in Europe. The Economic Journal. 2010 ;120(544):573–94.
Ipsos. Global Attitudes on Materialism, Finances and Family [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2020 Nov 6]. Available from : https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/news_and_polls/2013-12/6359.pdf
Bartolini S., Piekalkiewicz M. and Sarracino F. (2019) A social cure for social comparisons. Quaderni del Dipartimento di Economia Politica e Statistica, n. 797 (repec.deps.unisi.it/quaderni/797.pdf).