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Woman on a laptop doing Christmas shopping online, sitting among wrapped presents.

Can you resist the urge to over-consume at Christmas?

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin University’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing.

While there are thousands of people all over the world taking part in the ‘Buy Nothing’ movement, along with a whole range of other groups of people doing what they can to reduce consumption, resistance to commerce is nothing new. The first Buy Nothing Day was held in 1992, and many have posited that consumption is not the answer to all of our problems. But, with the rise in access to information, consumer-resistance movements are becoming increasingly popular, prevalent and visible in contemporary Western society.

Research in the field of anti-consumption has identified the emergence of groups of people with different motivations. One group, identified by scholars such as Rajesh Iyer from Bradley University in the US, are motivated by a desire to reduce the general level of consumption predominantly for the benefit of society or the planet.

Along with this group, we also see the emergence of simplifiers; those people who make a conscious decision to drop out of the fast paced, consumer oriented lifestyle – the seachange/treechange types.

Another group includes those people who simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t have the appropriate resources, are forced to buy nothing.

As we can see, there are a whole bunch of contradictions here, but one issue to consider is that as consumption becomes culture, things like values, ethics and symbolism are infused into consumer behaviour.

And, at an emotional level, it makes sense. Consuming provides comfort, satisfies physical needs and ultimately contributes to the construction of one’s self and the communication of it to others. The increasing diversity of products or services to choose from leads to a pressure for people to creatively pursue individuated identities (as consumers).

So, it becomes easier to consume and buy than it is to resist. In some circumstances, buying nothing is actually hard to do, because resisting certain items can often be emotionally and financially costly. Which leads us to the ritual buying frenzy that is Christmas.

'In some circumstances, buying nothing is actually hard to do, because resisting certain items can often be emotionally and financially costly.'

Dr Paul Harrison,
Deakin University

One of the things psychological research tells us is that we are not very good at predicting the future. Or maybe, it would be better put as: we have an over-inflated sense of our accuracy in predicting the future – we rely on how we feel right now to predict how we might feel about something later. Psychologists call it affective forecasting. So, in the moment, and just in that moment, we buy things that we think we will need. But we discount all the other things that we have bought, and also discount how having all that stuff didn’t necessarily make things great last time.

If we think about Christmas lunch or dinner, many of us are not good at planning how much food we will actually need and we aren’t very good at knowing how much we will actually end up eating (or needing to eat). We pile our plate high, because we don’t really know how much we need, but do know how much we want. Lots and lots. Just in case we miss out on something great.

It’s the same with gifts. We don’t plan, and so we are more susceptible to the gentle nudges that the marketers – with their tactics developed in the cold, hard, rational light of psychology – give us at Christmas time … when we are stressed, in a hurry and trying to do ten things at once.

We are also incredibly social animals; so many of us are influenced by this need to provide a lot of food, or gifts, so that we will be valued by our friends and family. To not do so, especially at Christmas, means resistance to a whole bunch of rites and rituals. The issue is that it requires significant personal and psychological resources to actually resist the marketers’ view of Christmas.

But, in the same context, we have never before had such an opportunity to resist those societal norms. With movements such as Buy Nothing Day, Buy Nothing New Month and even Occupy Christmas, there is significant support for those who wish to opt out of consumerism.

To resist any natural response requires a commitment to the idea of resistance, a willingness to practice that resistance at all times (we know that the more we do something, the easier it becomes) and, importantly, surrounding ourselves with people who will help us to resist, or at least won’t sabotage that resistance.

That said, these campaigns aren’t for everybody. In the first place, you have to have the resources to be able to Buy Nothing. Buying nothing for any period of time means that you should already have a fair bit of what is needed to function capably in society. If you already have nothing, this is going to be difficult. If you have other stresses in your life, it is also going to be difficult, simply because you won’t have the mental capacity and energy to process the information in a methodical, rational way.

But, for many who are tired of consumption as culture, any resistance is resistance and can, for some, lead to a long-term change in our behaviour.

Find out more about the research being conducted in Deakin University’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing. This piece first appeared on Dr Harrison’s website Tribal Insight, where you can find essays, discussions and the latest research and theory in the world of social psychology, consumerism and marketing.

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior lecturer, Deakin Business School
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