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Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy

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Americans toss out 140 million cell phones every year. We discard 2 million plastic bottles every five minutes. And our total credit-card debt as of July 2011 is $793 billion.

Plus, credit cards can make you fat.

The American Dream was founded on the belief that anyone dedicated to thrift and hard work could create opportunities and achieve a better life. Now that dream has been reduced to a hyperquantified desire for fancier clothes, sleeker ...

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Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy

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Americans toss out 140 million cell phones every year. We discard 2 million plastic bottles every five minutes. And our total credit-card debt as of July 2011 is $793 billion.

Plus, credit cards can make you fat.

The American Dream was founded on the belief that anyone dedicated to thrift and hard work could create opportunities and achieve a better life. Now that dream has been reduced to a hyperquantified desire for fancier clothes, sleeker cars, and larger homes. We’ve lost our way, but James Roberts argues that it’s not too late to find it again. In Shiny Objects, he offers us an opportunity to examine our day-to-day habits, and once again strive for lives of quality over quantity.

Mining his years of research into the psychology of consumer behavior, Roberts gets to the heart of the often-surprising ways we make our purchasing decisions. What he and other researchers in his field have found is that no matter what our income level, Americans believe that we need more to live a good life. But as our standard of living has climbed over the past forty years, our self-reported “happiness levels” have flatlined.

Roberts isn’t merely concerned with the GDP or big-ticket purchases—damaging spending habits play out countless times a day, in ways big and small: he demonstrates that even the amount we spend at our favorite fast-food joint increases anywhere from 60 to 100 percent when we use a credit card instead of cash. Every time we watch TV or turn on a radio we’re exposed to marketing messages (experts estimate up to 3,000 of them daily). Consumption is king, and its toll is not just a financial one: relationships are suffering, too, as materialism encroaches on the time and value we give the people around us.

By shedding much-needed light on the science of spending, Roberts empowers readers to make smart changes, improve self-control, and curtail spending. The American Dream is still ours for the taking, and Shiny Objects is ultimately a hopeful statement about the power we each hold to redefine the pursuit of happiness.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Why can’t money buy happiness? Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor University, studies why Americans believe and behave as if possessions will induce, increase, and enhance happiness—when, as studies show, materialism “negatively correlate” with well-being. He examines the psychological underpinnings of our desire to purchase—even beyond our means (it’s a high “similar to that caused by drugs or alcohol... triggered by internal psychological tension and accompanied by relief and frustration”). Roberts offers a history of American consumerism, drawing parallels between different eras (e.g., the gold rush and the more recent dot-com boom), the impact of Calvinism, Henry Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Vietnam War and the counterculture, and how the attacks of September 11 influenced (and usually stoked) the American mania for consumption. Roberts’s inquiry provides ample psychological and historical insights, but the book’s most valuable and unique feature is the quizzes included in each chapter. These opportunities for self-assessment—on how much we spend, how vulnerable we are to status anxiety—give readers “time, space and motivation” to examine our own relationships toward consumer culture and personal happiness. An intriguing cultural history–cum–self-help book with abundant hard scientific data. (Nov.)
Associated Press Staff
“Now along comes Shiny Objects, which promises to explore and explain Americans’ possession obsession. Roberts’ book contains hard evidence for some claims you probably already suspected were true... [and] includes some genuinely sobering statistics. Roberts knows his stuff.”
New Age Retailer
“Roberts... gives us evidence that we can’t buy happiness, or stress relief, despite the fact that the current version of the American Dream tells us otherwise. This [book] contains both the plain truth and real-world solutions for the financial dilemma many... are struggling with.”
Shelf Awareness
“Shiny Objects [is] an intellectual approach to an emotionally charged subject-—consumerism—with suggestions on how to escape materialism and build a life with real meaning.”
“Marketing professor Roberts examines the perceived relationship between materialism and happiness in the quest for status, self-image, or comfort, and the havoc it is wreaking in individual lives and the U.S. economy. A far-reaching analysis of why we spend so much and how to break the habit.”
Jim Randel
“Shiny Objects is a superb explanation of how, why, and when Americans became obsessed with consumption. This book is both entertaining and thought-provoking as it forces the reader to confront his or her own views and values. For that reason alone, it is worth its weight in gold.”
April Lane Benson
“Without shying away from the unpopular truth, Roberts encourages us to step back, notice, and yes, even laugh at our obsession with shiny objects. Important research findings and Practical exercises help us embrace our values and understand that we can never get enough of what we don’t really need.”
Baylor Lariat
“Dr. James A. Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor, has studied consumerism in America and has revealed some of the secrets of marketers in his recent book Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have In Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062093608
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/8/2011
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James A. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he has been a faculty member since 1991. Roberts is a nationally recognized expert on consumer behavior, and his research on compulsive buying, credit-card abuse, and the way that materialism affects our quality of life has been featured in media outlets including ABC’s World News, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan.

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Read an Excerpt

Shiny Objects

By James A. Roberts


Copyright © 2011 James A. Roberts
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780062093608

Chapter One

Shiny Objects
The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.
Shiny object (sh¯´ne¯ oˇ b´-jeˇkt´¹): anything that distracts the easily amused.
A "dog's life" never sounded so good. Forget about sleeping outside—42
percent of dogs now sleep with their owners and dine on organically grown
meat, vegan snacks, and other gourmet treats. Many even get presents on
their birthdays. Americans currently spend $48 billion a year on their
pets. That's double the amount spent ten years ago and is more than the
gross domestic product (GDP) of all but sixty-four countries. Spending on
our furry friends is expected to top $58 billion in the next few years.
As a loving pet owner, you can splurge $535 on a dog ramp by Puppy
Stairs to help your best friend make the ascent to your bed, $30 on an ounce
of puppy perfume, and $225 on a trench coat for the family pooch. And
let's not forget about doggie slippers, bikinis, and $500 Chanel pearls for
those big nights out. What about a $270 Furrari bed for the little guy? Pet
owners are also spending big on drugs to fight depression and separation
anxiety in pets, as well as on psychological counseling, high-tech medical
procedures, various cosmetic procedures, and end-of-life care. Plastic surgeons
offer nose jobs, face lifts, breast reductions, braces, and tummy tucks for man's best friend.
Nearly $10 billion is spent annually in the United States on veterinary services alone.
Americans spend an additional $10 billion on over-the-counter drugs and supplies.
All doubt as to whether pet pampering is out of control ends with
Neuticles, a patented testicular implant that fetches nearly one thousand
dollars for a set of two. After pets have been neutered, Neuticles allows
owners to "restore their pets to anatomical preciseness," and "preserve
both their natural look and their self-esteem" according to inventor
Gregg A. Miller who has sold more than 240,000 pairs of these little gems.
Prosthetic testicles for your canine companion—only in America.
Pet paraphernalia is only the tip of the iceberg. We are a nation in
love with shiny objects. Our homes, our cars, our offices, our purses, and
that storage unit we hate to admit to are all overflowing with our precious
belongings. Whether your personal weakness is shoes, cars, jewelry,
cigars, or any other possession (vintage posters, books, and watches are my
downfall), we Americans love our stuff.
When it comes to spending money, are you more of a tightwad or a
spendthrift? You'll have a chance to measure for yourself in chapter 5. Given
that we are a nation of consumers, you might be surprised to learn that the
majority of Americans would be classified as tightwads. With a high percentage
of people living from paycheck to paycheck, how can consumerism
be so rampant? It all boils down to how we pay for our purchases and the
"pain of paying" associated with each payment method— it's not that tightwads
don't want to spend money, they just don't want to feel like they're
spending money. We are a nation addicted to plastic. Using credit cards greatly
reduces the pain associated with paying for our purchases—so much so, in
fact, that credit cards have earned the nickname "spending facilitators" by those
of us who do research in this area. When we use credit cards, we make quicker
purchase decisions, are more likely to buy, and are willing to pay more.
But can credit cards make us fat? The answer to this question is an
unqualified yes. When we use credit cards instead of cash at fast food
restaurants, we spend anywhere from 60 to 100 percent more. The average
bill at McDonald's, for example, increased from $4.50 to $7.00 when
customers started using credit cards instead of cash. I call this the
"supersize effect" of credit cards. If credit cards can expand your waistline or
fatten your thighs, imagine what they can do to your household finances.
As a professor at Baylor University, I have spent over twenty years
conducting research with thousands of consumers from all walks of life
on the related areas of materialism, credit card use, and compulsive buying.
Why, in a land of plenty, do Americans want more? And why is more
never enough? Given that most Americans would readily admit that money
and material possessions are not going to make us happy, why do we continue
to act as if they will? This book is the culmination of my efforts and
those of other researchers to answer such questions. And though consumers
are inscrutable, we have begun to unlock some of the mysteries
behind materialism and its impact on our lives.
As this book details, our obsession with possessions has a significant
impact on our well-being. When asked what we really care about and
what we consider to be the most life-giving elements of our existence, the
vast majority of people respond in terms of the lasting value we place on
our relationships with family and friends. And yet our consumer behavior
contradicts such professed values. Our real habits—the time and resources
we devote to accumulating more stuff—tell a different story. As
the old saying goes, if you want to know what someone really cares about,
look at that person's bank account.
It is my hope that reading this book will give you the time, space, and
motivation to examine your day-to-day behavior in a way that our hectic
lives rarely allow. Some of the studies and statistics I'll share may surprise
you. Some may sound like they're describing someone else. But they all
speak to one undeniable truth: as consumers, we're not who we think we
are. It's time to bridge the gap between what we say and what we do. It's
time to recommit ourselves to the kind of pursuits that are the true source
of our well being: spending time with loved ones, reaching our full
potential as human beings, and participating actively in our world. No small
task, but one well worth the effort: our happiness lies in the balance.
Our current consumer culture is best understood as an environment in
which the majority of consumers avidly desire, pursue, consume, and
display goods and services that are valued for non-utilitarian reasons such as status,
envy, provocation, and pleasure-seeking. Whether you reside in a
major metropolitan city or a rural outpost of North America, you are part
of the worldwide consumer culture. To ignore the importance of material
possessions in our lives would be equivalent to ignoring that we are born
of mothers and fathers.
The emergence of a worldwide consumer culture has potentially severe
consequences for everyone. As you will soon see, even if you don't
practice or espouse materialistic ideals, you are affected by others' pursuit
of them. A good example might be the ghost of a recent Christmas past
for retailing giant Walmart.
Surely a man the size of Walmart worker Jdimytai Damour could control
the expected Black Friday shopping crowds. At six feet five inches and
270 pounds, he was a force to reckon with. In fact, he was chosen to work
the front entrance to the Walmart store at the Green Acres Mall in Valley
Stream, New York, precisely because of his hulking frame. But, alas, he
was no match for the crowd of 2,000 Walmart shoppers eagerly awaiting
the 5:00 a.m. store opening. A few minutes before store opening the
throng could no longer be held back. The sliding glass doors that separated
the would-be shoppers from the myriad of holiday bargains ("door
busters" takes on a whole new meaning) bowed from the bodies pressed
against them. Six to ten workers attempted to no avail to push back, but
they were fighting a losing battle. In an instant, the glass doors shattered
and the frenzied mob surged into the store in search of the heavily
discounted "doorbusters" available in limited quantities for a short period of
time. Tragically, Mr. Damour was thrown to the floor and trampled to
death (the official cause of death being asphyxiation related to his
trampling) in the stampede that streamed over him in pursuit of bargains on
big screen TVs, electronics, clothing, and a myriad of other consumer
goodies. One shopper, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said that the crowd
acted like "savages." And the shoppers' bad behavior didn't end with the
trampling of Mr. Damour. When the shoppers were informed that the
store would need to be cleared because of the death of an employee, many
continued to shop, yelling that they had been waiting in line since the day
before. Many had to be escorted from the store.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines materialism, in that word's
common usage, as "devotion to material needs and desires, to the neglect of
spiritual matters; a way of life, opinion, or tendency based entirely upon
material interests." I think of materialism as a mind-set, an interest in
getting and spending, the worship of things, the overriding importance
that someone attaches to worldly possessions. For a consumer who has
fully embraced shiny objects, possessions take center stage and are
considered to be the primary source of all happiness. Money and material
possessions are seen as an end in themselves, rather than as a means to an
end. Materialism is the cornerstone of our modern consumer culture.
We Americans attempt to find happiness and satisfaction through the
acquisition of possessions, which typically assume a central role in our
life. Of course, not all Americans are equally materialistic, but on average
we are a materialistic lot. Those of us who are highly materialistic (let's
use the term "materialists") believe that expanded levels of consumption
will increase the amount of pleasure we achieve in life. Research, however,
paints a bleak picture for happiness through acquisition, consistently
showing that those of us who live materialistic lifestyles are less happy
with our lives than less materialistic people are. On average, U.S. consumers
are no happier than less profligate consumers around the world. I will have
more to say about the materialism–happiness relationship in chapter 4.
Materialists tend to judge their own and others' success by the number
and quality of accumulated possessions. The primary value of possessions,
for diehard materialists, is their ability to confer status and project
a desired self-image. Materialists view themselves and others as successful
only to the extent that they possess products that project a desired
image. How successful can my colleague be, they wonder, driving a car
like that, or living in that neighborhood? Judging others by what they
possess is a deeply ingrained part of our collective psyche.
In our rush, rush world, a common way we tell others who we are (or
would like to be) is through our use and display of material possessions.
He drives a Mercedes, so he must be a captain of industry. A truck and he
must be a cowboy or at least a rugged individualist. A Hummer, and . . .
I'm not sure what that says about the driver. This tendency to define
ourselves by the products we consume results in what researchers call the
"extended self"; in other words, our possessions become an extension of
who we are. I amend the label to the "overextended self" when referring
to consumers who have fully embraced the shiny-objects ethos. Research
has found that highly materialistic people value their possessions for their
ability to conjure up a desired social image, whereas their less materialistic
brethren value their stuff for the pleasure and comfort it provides.
Furthermore, as you've probably noticed with your more pretentious
acquaintances, materialistic people are more likely than less materialistic
people to mention an item's financial value when describing why it's
important to them: "That cost me nearly $30,000!"
Not only do a person's materialistic values affect how he or she relates
to possessions, but they also affect how that person spends money.
Compared to less materialistic people, materialists believe that they require
more money to satisfy their "needs" and are more likely to spend money
on themselves and friends and donate less to charities.
The "Great Recession" of 2008/2009 and the continuing economic malaise
have the average folks on Main Street on edge regarding their financial
future. With high unemployment, mortgages being forfeited, and credit
being tightened, it's likely that Americans will be spending less this year—
and that's a terrifying thought for citizens who have been taught that shop-
ping is a patriotic act. We live in a country where we are repeatedly told that
happiness can be purchased at the mall, online, or from a catalog, so the
idea of scaling back on our purchases is frightening. But I've got some good
news to share: happiness is not positively correlated with consumption.
Between 1972 and 2010, the standard of living in America increased
dramatically. When we produce more, we consume more8, and within that
time period, our national output per capita increased by 96 percent. But
GDP for earlier years has been adjusted to current dollars. Happiness data was taken
from the General Social Survey (GSS)9 of over 50,000 people and represents the
percentage of people who responded "pretty happy" to the question: "Taken all together,
how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy,
pretty happy, or not too happy?"
U.S. GDP and Happiness, 1972–2010:
What's Wrong with This Picture?

While our standard of living has improved over the past thirty to thirty-five
years, our happiness has not. In fact, as the graph on the previous page
depicts very clearly, our happiness has flat lined. Based on surveys of over
50,000 people conducted by the General Social Survey (GSS), the graph
shows that the number of people reporting that they are "pretty happy"
has varied little. So what does this mean? It means that more stuff does
not necessarily make us any happier. And this particular study paints a
"rosier picture" than other research findings—alternate surveys reveal
that the more we spend the less happy we are.
In the chapters to come I will reveal surprising studies that showcase
just how deeply ingrained our materialism and spending habits are in all
aspects of our lives. A substantial amount of research supports the materialism-
happiness disconnect.10 Materialism negatively impacts (1) how
we feel about ourselves, (2) our personal relationships, (3) our life satisfaction,
and, of course, our finances.


Excerpted from Shiny Objects by James A. Roberts Copyright © 2011 by James A. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of HarperOne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Shiny Objects 1

2 Chasing the American Dream 23

3 The American Dream on Steroids 45

4 The Cat's Out of the (Shopping) Bag 77

5 The Treadmill of Consumption 95

6 The Cashless Society 111

7 Money's Hidden Costs: Sacrificing Our Life Goals 137

8 Collateral Damage: Relationships 151

9 Why Are We So Materialistic? 171

10 Heaven Help Us: The Prosperity Gospel 185

11 Weapons of Mass Consumption 205

12 The Three Ingredients of Self-Control 239

13 Step Away from the Shopping Cart: Environmental Programming for Consumers 261

14 The Carrot and the Stick: Behavioral Programming for Consumers 281

15 Your Money or Your Life 295

Appendix 309

Notes 315

Index 339

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Customer Reviews

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( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2012


    *plays raise your glass and walks off the stage*

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2012


    Hey he looks at yu with his wavy hair in his eyes

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2012

    Smoe to dani

    Electric guitarist/guitarist.

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2012

    Food for thought!

    This should be required reading for students. They have no clue what they need and what they do not need. And then they sould give it to their parents and teachers to read as well....

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted January 29, 2012

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