Sun and colleagues carried out a series of studies exploring the connection between attachment issues and materialism. In the first, 237 participants filled out a survey designed to assess attachment issues, asking participants to respond to statements like “I worry that partners won’t care about me as much as I care about them” and “I am nervous when partners get too close to me.”
They also asked for participants’ responses to statements on materialism, like “I like a lot of luxury in my life” and “My life would be better if I owned certain things I don’t have.” As predicted, highly attachment-anxious people were indeed more materialistic.
Attachment-avoidant people were not significantly materialistic when other factors were taken into account that influence materialism. Specifically, gender and family monthly income are known to correlate with materialism; when considering these variables as well, attachment avoidance was not significantly correlated with materialism.
The next study tested whether attachment issues were truly a cause of materialism by artificially bolstering the participants’ sense of attachment and then measuring materialism afterwards. The researchers asked half of the participants to think of somebody they turn to for help and assurance, imagine their face, and then describe a situation where that person helped them in detail. As a control, the other half of the study sample was asked to recall an acquaintance and describe a scenario in which they interacted.
Then, the researchers presented the participants with a task designed to measure materialism. The participants viewed a series of words on a computer screen that were materialistic (“money”), neutral (“sky”), or a nonsensical collection of letters. They were told to press a key if the word was meaningful or another key if the word was meaningless.
By measuring the response times to the different categories of words, the researchers were able to determine how accessible materialistic thoughts were to the participants. Highly materialistic people in the control group were able to quickly determine that words like “money” did indeed have meaning—quite a lot of meaning for them.
However, the participants who had been primed to feel an interpersonal connection with another person were slower on the draw: Those words seemed to lack the immediacy and importance that they had before. It’s important to note that, as per the researcher’s hypothesis, the effects of this study were stronger in participants with attachment anxiety rather than attachment avoidance.
At first glance, these findings might seem very depressing. The lonelier you are, the more likely you are to pursue material things to fill that hole in your heart. But, there’s also a more optimistic way of interpreting these results. Materialism may be a temporary and ineffectual solution to a larger problem, but once a lonely person gets what they really need, the crutch is no longer necessary.