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trueHUE® Water cooler stories
Humans have a particularly strong and, at times, irrational obsession with possessions.
In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons were markers of elite social position. He coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the willingness of people to buy more expensive goods over cheaper, yet functionally equivalent, goods in order to signal status. One reason is rooted in evolutionary biology.
Both male and female humans also evolved physical attributes that signal biological fitness but, with our capacity for technology, we can also display our advantages in the form of material possessions. The wealthiest among us are more likely to live longer, sire more offspring and be better prepared to weather the adversities that life can throw at us.
While having stuff signals reproductive potential, there is also a very powerful personal reason for wealth – a point made by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, when he wrote in 1759: ‘The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world.’ Not only does material wealth make for a more comfortable life, but we derive satisfaction from the perceived admiration of others.
Most importantly, we are what we own. .
Belk also recognized that the possessions that we see as most indicative of ourselves are the ones that we see as most magical. These are the sentimental objects that are irreplaceable, and often associated with some intangible property or essence that defines their authenticity. Originating in Plato’s notion of form, the essence is what confers identity. Essentialism is rampant in human psychology as we imbue the physical world with this metaphysical property.
Essentialism is the quality that makes your wedding ring irreplaceable. Not everyone acknowledges his or her essentialism, but it is at the root of some of the most acrimonious disputes over property, which is when they have become sacred, and part of our identity. In this way, possessions not only signal who we are to others, but remind us who we are to ourselves, and of our need for authenticity in an increasingly digital world.