The term “consumers” is routinely used in place of “people” and “citizens.” While most people (consumers?) don’t notice or care much about the terms being used interchangeably, there are those who resent being labeled as “consumers,” as if their sole purpose and reason for existence on this planet is to consume—to eat, drink, use, watch, and buy stuff, and keep the economy humming along. Now, a new psychological study indicates that it may be in everyone’s interest if we stop referring to (insulting?) folks as mere consumers.
A team of researchers led by Galen Bodenhausen, a professor of psychology and marketing at Northwestern University, has published the results of a new study about materialism and happiness in the journal Psychological Science. Among the familiar findings—money can’t buy happiness, and material possessions don’t make us happy either—is one concerning the use of the word “consumer.”
In one of the study’s tests, participants were presented with the following hypothetical scenario: There is a water shortage, and four people (including the participants) must share a well. Sometimes in the experiment, participants were called “consumers,” and other times they were referred to as “individuals.” And apparently, words can be powerful.
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When participants were labeled as “consumers,” they were more likely to selfishly focus on their own individual consumption:
The “consumers” rated themselves as less trusting of others to conserve water, less personally responsible and less in partnership with the others in dealing with the crisis. The consumer status, the authors concluded, “did not unite; it divided.”
“It’s become commonplace to use consumer as a generic term for people,” said Bodenhausen, but a “subtle difference activates different psychological concerns” depending on whether “consumer” is used, as opposed to the more neutral terms “Americans,” “citizens,” or “people.”
When we view ourselves and each other first and foremost as materialistic “consumers,” the researchers say that the results are a more depressed, anxious population and a more antisocial, isolated society. Basically, you want to live in a place filled with everyday people, not surrounded by desperate, ultra-selfish consumers who are all battling it out over precious resources in some ugly post-apocalyptic world that resembles Black Friday at the mall.
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At some level, many individuals—note I didn’t use “consumers”—already resent the “consumer” label. Andrew Benett, a marketing expert and author of the surprisingly anti-consumerism recession-era book Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending, harped on how nonchalantly the “consumer” moniker is tossed around, writing:
Along with economists, politicians, business reporters and advocacy groups, we habitually describe our fellow humans as consumers. Of course, that term makes sense when applied to people wolfing down food and drink, but lately it has been extended to virtually every area of our lives. Nowadays we do not just consume hot dogs and Cokes; we consume services and environmental resources and media and durable goods and everything else imaginable, all with greedy gusto and a seemingly bottomless appetite.
Until recently, just about everyone accepted this insidious new moniker, perhaps not even noticing when the term consumer began to push aside references to ourselves as citizens or simply men and women.
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Especially during the heart of the recession circa 2009, though, the rise of an anti-consumerism movement (the idea) was paired with a rise in an anti-“consumer” movement (the word). Here’s an example from a thread of discussion at Democratic Underground:
The way that the media and these wall street douchenozzles bandy the word “consumer” and use it to generally apply to any person who ever buys anything (IE all of us) completely disgusts me. It reduces all of us to market forces and resources to be bought and sold, and to be held in little more respect and with little more consideration than that which is granted to livestock, or ore bearing rocks.
What the new psychological study indicates is that the term “consumer” may not only be insulting—it’s possibly bad for society as well.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.