Gies Business Today - Aric Rindfleisch, The Impact of Gratitude on Adolescent Materialism and Generosity
From John Tubbs on 11/2/2018
GIES BUSINESS TODAY – November 2, 2018
HOST: Welcome to Gies Business Today. (Music) Welcome to this episode of Gies Business Today. Joining us is Aric Rindfleisch, Professor of Business Administration and John M. Jones Professor of Marketing at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Aric is here to talk with us today about his research about gratitude. (Music)
Along with being John M. Jones Professor of Marketing, he is also the Executive Director of the Illinois MakerLab at the University of Illinois. He earned a PhD in marketing and sociology from the University of Wisconsin, an MBA from Cornell University, and a BS in management from Central Connecticut State University. Aric previously served as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, University of Arizona, Korea University, and Tilburg University. In addition to his academic experience he also served as a marketing researcher, advertising executive, and an officer in the US Army. Aric's research - which mainly focuses on consumers and brands, interfirm relationships, and new product development - has been published in several leading academic journals including the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Operations Management, Strategic Management Journal, among others. His research has won numerous awards and has been cited by The Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Huffington Post. In addition to his research accomplishments, Aric is also an award winning teacher and was named by Princeton Review as one of the best 300 professors in America. He's taught at all levels, ranging from undergraduate to doctoral students, and also teaches three popular Coursera classes: Marketing in a Digital World, Marketing in an Analog World, and The 3D Printing Revolution.
Aric thanks for joining us. It’s great to have you here today.
RINDFLEISCH: Well thank you Aaron. It's great to be here.
HOST: Aric co-authored a paper called The Impact of Gratitude on Adolescent Materialism and Generosity. It was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. Aric quickly give us a summary - an overview - of what this paper is all about.
RINDFLEISCH: Well Aaron basically we're looking at how to reduce materialism among children. It's something that's not good for kids, and we think we have a very innovative approach on how to do that by making them more grateful for the people and things in their lives.
HOST: People can have different definitions of materialism. That can be kind of an amorphous word there. When you talk about materialism, what exactly are you talking about?
RINDFLEISCH: What we mean is the importance that people - in this case children - place on material objects: so clothes, homes, cars for example.
HOST: How long have you been studying materialism?
For a long time since my doctoral student days. Over 20 years.
HOST: What got you interested in that topic?
RINDFLEISCH: Good question. I think probably my own childhood. I grew up in a fairly wealthy community on the poor side of town. I was raised by grandparents on social security, so I went to school and most of the kids wore nicer clothes and got picked up in fancier cars. I think I always wanted those things and trying to I guess understand myself more than anything.
HOST: So, as you've gone through these years of research on materialism, what have you learned about why people become materialistic?
RINDFLEISCH: Good question Aaron. Well a healthy body of research - mine and other scholars in both marketing and psychology - have found that the basic driver of materialism is simply insecurity. It comes in many forms. It can come in social insecurity, psychological insecurity, economic insecurity, and even existential insecurity.
HOST: For this specific angle for this paper, I'm always interested in how you came about pursuing this avenue for this research.
RINDFLEISCH: As I said Aaron, I have been studying materialism for a long time, and I usually focused on the consequences of materialism. What I found in my research is that people who are more materialistic tend to have lower levels of well-being. They’re more depressed, more anxious, they have lower happiness and reduced sense of life satisfaction. So what we're trying to do in this research is not just document this effect but actually reduce it.
HOST: And you're one of four researchers who worked on this paper. I'm always interested in learning how this team came together. How did this team get built around this paper?
RINDFLEISCH: Good question. Well, all four of us have interest in materialism. So I've been studying it, and these other folks been studying it, and we just thought to be neat to get together and share a mutual interest. I've been studying mostly adults in my research, and the first author Lan Chaplin has been studying children. It was a nice confluence of interest and skills.
HOST: Now let's dig in a little bit to what you guys researched and the methodology for how you came about this. Tell me where you guys started, and what prior research you used to build upon in this.
RINDFLEISCH: Sure, well we began with the theory, and so as we mentioned earlier we know that people who are more materialistic can have a reduced sense of wellbeing and also are less generous to others. And that's what we’re looking at in this research. The ultimate outcome is the degree of generosity to other children in this case. So we began with that theory, and that leads us to insecurity as a cause of materialism. And we find – and other research has found - that what makes people more secure is a feeling that they have others in their lives, and in a sense that's what gratitude is all about is being aware and thankful for what other people have done in your life. Usually people who are more grateful tend to have less issues with security because they know they've been the beneficiary of others. So that's sort of the starting point, and then we wanted to put those thoughts - so we've thought in a sense that gratitude could be in a sense an antidote to materialism and also its negative effects in this case on generosity. So to put that to the test we actually used two different studies. The first study we worked with Harris Interactive, which is a large survey organization, and they run a monthly panel. We were able to take part of that and get over 800 children between the ages of 11 and 17.
HOST: How did you pick those ages?
RINDFLEISCH: Well we wanted to focus on adolescents because materialism you know forms just before that age. And we wanted to keep it to children, so we stopped at 17 to have the adolescent population. That's also the age in which children have more buying power, so we thought the results were more impactful with that age. So we did this first study with Harris Interactive. We measured materialism, and we measured gratitude.
HOST: It’s important - two separate topics they're measured you know individually to see if there was a correlation right? It that what you're going for?
RINDFLEISCH: Exactly, and we found that as we expected that children who reported higher levels of materialism - more materialistic - were actually less, had lower levels or gratitude and vice versa. So that is a correlational study as you mentioned, so it's hard to say which causes which. So in a sense is gratitude really lowering materialism or are people who are simply more materialistic less thankful or is there a third cause somewhere out there? So we did a second study that gave us more of a look into the causal direction, and that was a simple field experiment.
HOST: Which I found fascinating. Explain this one to us.
RINDFLEISCH: So my colleague Lan Chaplin has been doing research with children for a while, so she has good connections, and we simply went to some summer camps in two different states that are populated by children of these ages, and we worked with them over two weeks - the camp duration was two weeks - to actually do a field study in which we manipulated gratitude. So we measured materialism and also gratitude at the beginning of the camp - beginning of the two weeks - and then we had our manipulation.
HOST: They took a similar survey, right? The first group of 870 adolescents did to measure kind of their baseline feelings or their emotions when it came to materialism right?
RINDFLEISCH: Correct the same measures we used in the first study, and then we had them keep a journal. Each day they wrote things in their journal. In the control group they simply recorded their daily events. In the gratitude manipulation we had them write down things that they were thankful for in their lives. So they did this every day for two weeks - 14 days - and at the end of that period we reassessed both gratitude and materialism, and then we also measured generosity.
HOST: And the results of that, after the two weeks of the journal, you gave them ten dollars. And what did you expect to happen with that ten dollars? And what did you see?
RINDFLEISCH: Well we actually looked at two things. So the study did something different than the first study. The first study was simply a correlational look at gratitude and materialism. So first of all, our results confirmed that first study that we found that the children who were keeping the gratitude journals had a reduced level materialism. So both groups had the same materialistic tendencies at the beginning of the two weeks, but those who kept a gratitude journal for 14 days had their materialism level reduced. In addition to that, we wanted to assess how generous they were to see if that had any effect. So as you mentioned we gave each child an envelope filled with one dollar bills and gave them a chance to donate any or all of that money to charity. And what we found essentially was the children who were keeping the journal of their daily events gave around $4.30 to charity. Those who were recording things they were grateful for actually gave a higher amount, $6.80 approximately, so there was a 60% increase in their level of actual generosity.
HOST: So, the ones who kept the regular daily journal gave a little bit less than half of that money to charity. The ones who kept the gratitude journal gave about two-thirds of that money to charity after just two weeks.
RINDFLEISCH: Two weeks.
HOST: Were you surprised at those results at all?
RINDFLEISCH: Well we were placed by the results. I think we were surprised by how large the difference was. We thought there would be a difference, but we had never done anything like this using actual cash. And I imagine that if you're 11 years old - even in today's age - probably ten dollars is you know quite a bit of money. So we were surprised by the size of that difference.
HOST: What new ground did you break with this research? We talked a little bit about not a lot had been done with this age group, and then not a lot had been done to determine causality between materialism and gratitude and generosity. What new ground do you feel you guys are able to break with this research?
RINDFLEISCH: Well I think there are two important outcomes of this study. First of all showing that there appears to be a causal connection, that actually by changing or trying to change a child's level of gratitude you actually impact their materialism, which is important because materialism is a value and values are formed at an early age and they’re deeply held. And research has found that values are hard to shift, so we really haven't been able to document reductions in materialism over time. This is one of the first studies to do that – to show that happen - and then more importantly I think is the actual practical implications. So most people who study materialism as well as those who are concerned about materialism including many parents have tried to reduce this value among their children and the usual strategy is simply to prevent them or reduce the amount of messages that they see like advertisements.
HOST: But you don't think that works. Why?
RINDFLEISCH: It's hard to do. I don’t know about your kids, but it seems a lot of kids by this age by age 11 might have a smartphone so even if you don't own a television or restrict television viewing your child is probably getting some materialistic messages you know somewhere else - and probably quite a bit. So the idea that parents or school administrators can simply limit access to these messages seems unlikely, so what we have here is simply we think a more workable, a very low cost, easy, effective strategy is not to simply try to prevent but to treat in a sense and by keeping or making children aware that they have things to be thankful for therefore boosting their sense of security and lowering the need to be materialistic in the first place.
HOST: This study was just two weeks - two weeks of keeping that journal you see pretty remarkable results, but it takes some diligence and effort from parents if they're going to try and implement this in their household of really making sure you know their children are focused on gratitude and being thankful for what they have. What advice - tangible advice - would you have for parents who maybe had a chance to read over the study? They read about it and go ‘Wow this is interesting.’ From you know one of the researchers himself on this topic, what advice would you give for parents who maybe want to try to implement something like this?
RINDFLEISCH: Well I would first say that as we know that our children often pay more attention to the things we do than the things that we say. I would say simply model this behavior by parents. It would be great if each day parents can mention things they’re thankful for and start that practice through a modeling technique, but there are very easy ways to implement this strategy. Make every day Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is coming up, and at the dinner table, the breakfast table maybe while you're watching even TV state things that you're thankful for as a family. And we also mention the idea in this research of a gratitude jar, in which every day you have some posted notes and members of the family can just actually jot down things that they were thankful for that day. Maybe somebody was kind to them at school or at work, and drop that in the jar. And maybe every so often every couple of weeks dig in the jar and read them as a family. This might be pretty nice thing to do.
HOST: Now this study focused on adolescents ages 11 to 17, but I would imagine we can start much earlier with our kids in fostering the sense of gratitude. Do you have any idea from either your research or previous research that you've seen, how early can parents start where it's really going make an impact on the kids?
RINDFLEISCH: That’s a good question. Since this is a treatment strategy, ideally it would be something that would happen once materialism is formed. We see some research suggesting as early as age eight children start developing these attitudes. Probably around age 10 or 11 they're more or less fully formed and most likely to stick with us for the rest of our lives. So the sooner the better. Age eight I think would be an appropriate age to begin.
HOST: What's next for this area of research? You guys are able to break some new ground in this paper that you guys put together. What else is out there? And what's the next step in learning about either what causes materialism or how to treat it or different ways to reduce the levels of that in kids? What do you think is the next step in this field of research?
RINDFLEISCH: Well some research that I've worked on in the past and currently working on is understanding the role of brands in this area. So we tend to look at materialism as a value but oftentimes not linking that directly to the actual brands that people consume and use so we're interested in looking at the type of brands that materialistic individuals have strong connections to and which ones may be most problematic in terms of our sense of security and also generosity and our well-being so more of I would say a deeper dive into the weeds, the specifics of really what's going on here in terms of the brands that we both market and also consume.
HOST: What was your biggest takeaway from this research specifically? And what you were able to put into it and learn from it and a lot of practical ideas that can come from this that you know mainstream people everywhere can use you know everyone who's got kids this is a constant struggle. What is your big takeaway that you got from all of this is research?
RINDFLEISCH: I think for me the biggest takeaway is how easy it is to implement the outcomes of this research. I mean I’ve been doing research for a long time, and oftentimes I wonder you know what a manager or consumer would do with my findings because they may be complex and/or difficult to implement or may require a large change of what an organization does what people do - compared to most of all my other research this is the project that has I think the most tangible and most easily to implement outcomes. It’s very simple. Just be thankful.
HOST: It's some great advice. Aric thank you so much for being here today. Again his paper is called The Impact of Gratitude on Adolescent Materialism and Generosity. It was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. If you want to find more information about Aric's work you can head to our website. It’s business.illinois.edu, and you can find his profile there.
Thank you the listener for joining us for Gies Business Today. Again this is Aaron Bennett with Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for Gies Business Today. Have a great day.