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Materialism and Type-A Behavior

October 21, 2013

The desire to accumulate material possessions as proof of success and well-being is related to Type A behavior. That is the conclusion drawn by Australian researchers who penned “An Exploratory Look at the Relationship Between Materialistic Values and Goals and Type A Behaviour.” The Australian study published by the Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology and authored by Shaun A. Sanders, Michael W. Allen, and Kay Pozzebon found that materialism engenders aggressive, impatient, and sometimes hostile behaviors typified by a Type-A behavioral pattern. In their study, the authors note that “social scientists conceptualize materialism in subtly different ways: the combination of envy, nongenerosity, and preservation personality traits (Belk, 1988), defining oneself through material objects (Claxton & Murray, 1994), a style of consuming (Holt, 1995), those motivated by a need for security (Inglehart 1977, 1997), and an excessive concern for material possessions (Richins & Dawson, 1992).”

While these varying definitions of materialism may suggest subtle differences, all of these descriptions refer to an approach toward human life that is unhealthy and inconsistent with the demands of the Gospel. These ways of being in the world are all based on false conceptions about the value of the human person and our ultimate goal in life. Of course, in a society that is saturated with marketing campaigns promoting materialism, it is often difficult to see the harm in such messages. I suspect we’ve all become numb to these sensual assaults and the messages they imply in not so subtle fashion. Such marketing efforts tell us that if we wear just the right clothes or have the correct hairstyle, the world can be ours. The message is contained in every advertising campaign: we can supposedly obtain safety, security, recognition, status, and happiness if we buy the right things and look the right way. However, in order to acquire these material things, we have to be aggressive, competitive, and in a word “Type A” for all the wrong reasons. The authors of the Australian study write, “If persons within a market-driven society are differentiated by what they possess, rather than who they are, then it is most likely that they consider both their own and other’s value (or worth) as something that is externally and competitively determined by both the number and quality of possessions accumulated.”

Because this materialistic outlook of contemporary advertising is a fundamental lie about the human person, the more you buy into this attitude the more enslaved to it you become. Rather than experiencing freedom and serenity, you are bound to your possessions and the anxiety to accumulate more possessions increases exponentially each time a new item is acquired. Long before this 2008 study explored the connection between materialism and the time-urgency of Type-A behavior, Saint John Chrysostom described this dangerous state to Christians in Constantinople as follows: “In being rich you will never stop being thirsty and aflame with desire for more, but if you were free from your possessions, you would be able to hinder this disease. Don’t cumber yourself with more possessions, so that you don’t follow after things that you cannot attain and become incurable, miserable, and frantic” (Homily 58 on Matthew). The false god of materialism demands a total self-sacrifice without providing any return for the oblation. For some who are caught in this deceptive trap, the urge to achieve more and to acquire more exacerbates the worst aspects of Type A behavior. The ego grows unabated to the point where the value of another person is discounted and viewed as an enemy to one’s self-evolution. And in so doing, those very virtues that make humanity beautiful become forever beyond our reach, simply because we continue to reach for the wrong things. As Saint Ambrose of Milan put it, “For as long as we want to add to our possessions and to heap up money, to take into our possession fresh lands, and to be the richest of all, we have cast aside the form of justice and have lost the blessing of kindness towards everyone. How can he be just that tries to take from another what he wants for himself? The desire to gain power also enervates the perfect strength and beauty of justice. For how can he, who attempts to bring others under his own power, come forward on behalf of others? And how can a man help the weak against the strong, when he himself aspires to great power at the cost of liberty?” (On the Duties of the Clergy, book 1).

Materialism advertises itself as the solution to the underlying self-worth issues that serve as the foundation for dysfunctional Type-A behavior. Materialism tells you that if you aren’t acquiring what you think you need to acquire for your own personal happiness, you need only work harder, be more aggressive, be more impatient with those who place demands on you, and focus more on your own goals for success.

All of this is of course contrary to the message of the Gospel. Human life is about love for God and others, not about acquiring material possessions or ephemeral prestige for me and, in our more generous moments, those close to me. Love requires sacrifice for God and for one’s neighbor. Love requires that we die to selfishness and personal gain. Of course, material possessions are by no means evil in and of themselves just as Type-A behaviors are by no means evil per se, for a good God created them both for love and for living. But how we use and view those possessions, like how we use and view Type-A behaviors, is what matters. Saint Augustine wrote about the proper moderate and sober way of handling our possessions: “If they are held by us without laying hold on us, are multiplied without entangling us, and serve us without bringing us into bondage, such conduct entitles us to the recompense of eternal blessings” (Letter 15). Such advice could also be given for Type-A behavior. “Redeeming the time” in harmony with Type-A tendencies, but also “walking in wisdom” (Colossians 4:5), meaning that God, not time, is our Master, that we walk in His commandments, rather than run after the imaginations of our hearts, and that we let the wisdom of God guide us in our efforts to redeem the time, not the compulsion to prove ourselves where proofs are not even necessary. The good news is that all the good things in this material world can be used to and for the glory of God. The good news is that Type A behavior properly modified can be directed toward true human perfection in God. And the way to that blessed goal is simple: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

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