Beyond Sustainable Economy: The Material Self

Published: 22.07.2017

Knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves. Our sense of self is often very insecure – we may have low self-esteem and we continue to support it by accumulating more and more material things, because to a large degree we are (i.e. identify with) what we have and possess. The premise that we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves is acknowledged in all human civilizations. Some material possessions are essential for living but it becomes pathological when accumulation becomes a goal in itself.

More than a century back William James (1890), who is considered to be the father of American psychology, stated that people largely identify themselves with what they possess. Material possessions constitute a significant part of one's self (or ego) and develop in the process of our growing up in a society. James called it the material self, which constitutes personal belongings and associated things and objects. He suggested that one's material belongings, such as a home, clothes, car, and furniture are all extensions of one's own self. James held that losing these personal belongings is akin to losing some part of one's self, which in extreme case may give a sense of 'nothingness' if what one looses are personal belongings to which one I deeply attached. People whose personal self largely constituted of material things are always insecure and vulnerable.

This material self is considered in Freudian and post-Freudian literature to be part of what constitutes one's extended ego. The Austrian neurologist psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) had talked about what he called the Oedipus Complex[1] which develops at the very early stage of a growing up child. It refers to the desire to have the exclusive possession of one's own mother. It is quite likely that this desire to possess one's mother gets transferred to material things at a later stage in life. This identification of the ego with material possessions leads to a lifetime pursuit of having more and more of it. This desire at some stage becomes so intense that one comes to identify with what one has acquired and accumulated. Erich Fromm (1900–1980)[2], who came from a psychoanalytic tradition, argued in his book, "To Have or To Be" (1976) that there are two ways of existence that compete for 'the spirit of mankind', namely having and being. The having mode looks to things and material possessions and is based on aggression and greed. Accumulating worldly objects has become an obsession for people in the present material age. People are known for the wealth they have, cars they drive, the house they live in, etc. People 'are' what they possess.

In the beginning of the last century the British psychologist William McDougall (1871-1931) (BOOKS: 1923/1908) stated that the impulse to collect and hoard various objects is displayed by almost all human beings, and is instinctive. Litwinski (1942) observed in his work that children display an impulse to act possessively and assert claims of ownership at a very early age. It must be an innate tendency, though it owes its strength, as well as the direction to social education.[3] Seligman (1975) suggested that ownership and its psychological state is experienced early in the development process, but for young children the differentiation between self and not-self is on the basis of the sense of personal control. The objects that can be personally controlled come to be considered as part of the self, and those which cannot fall in the not-self region. However in stead of 'possession', responsibility can develop in the young huma's psychology. It is also through a parent's education (e.g., "not yours, don't touch," "go and get your ball," "use your own towel") that little children come to consider objects as their own. Ellis (1985) reviewed the literature on possessions and property, and concluded that possessive behavior seems to be universally present in the human societies he studied and is most evident in references to the self and one's own personal space. Dittmar (1992) argued that biology may play a role in possessive behavior, but social and cultural factors significantly influence how people relate to their material belongings.[4]

Investing the self in objects

That we make things a part of our own self by creating or acquiring them, is part of a universal belief in possession. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) provide an explanation of how we develop a sense of possession of material things. They suggest that we invest "psychic energy" in an object to which we have directed our efforts, time, and attention. This energy and products are regarded as a part of the self, because they have grown or emerged from personal experience of the self. Psychological ownership of an object answers the question –"What I feel is mine?" and its conceptual core is a sense of possession of a particular target object (Wilpert, 1991). Such psychological ownership reflects a relationship between an individual and an object (material or immaterial) in which the object is experienced as having a close connection with the self.

There is enough psychological literature to through light on why people indulge in possessing material goods and things. Various surveys bring out that loneliness is the main reason of hankering for material possession.[5]  People who do not have close relatives or friends, or have been cheated in relationship are more likely to engage in accumulating material things (money, property) as a substitute. It is a kind of substitute security in absence of social and emotional support. People the tend to get more attached to material possession and seek security therein. This sort of craving may of course, in turn lead to further 'deficits', causing a chicken or egg situation for those in the throes of materialistic craving, which, in turn, create social isolation and loneliness.

Material possessions are seen as protection against pain and suffering in life. We desperately strive to secure our lives against the vagaries of fate through our possessions. This thinking and attitude become so ingrained in our consciousness that we begin to accumulate things even when we do not actually need them, a situation most religions recognize as a serious problem responsible for our suffering and our bondage to the cycle of births and deaths.

Material possession attachment

Material possession attachment reflects the vital and ubiquitous way people value goods. It is a multi-faceted property of the relationship between a specific individual or group of individuals and a specific, material object that an individual has psychologically appropriated, decommodified, and singularized through person-object interaction. Nine characteristics portray attachment: (1) forms of attachment towards specific material objects – not product categories or brands; (2) attachment to possessions must be psychologically appropriated; (3) attachments are self-extensions; (4) attachments are decommodified and singularized; (5) attachment requires a personal history between person and possession; (6) attachment has the property of strength; (7) attachment is multi-faceted; (8) attachment is emotionally complex; and (9) attachments evolve over time as the meaning of the self changes.

Attachment means holding on to things dearly as if one cannot live without them or as if one's very happiness and existence depend upon them. These are the mental bonds you develop with things and objects you believe are important for oneself and one's happiness. They are the invisible strings that tie you to the external world and its myriad attractions through your sense organs. Your attachments are part of your consciousness. They bind you to the sensory world and limit your vision, knowledge and awareness. They determine your actions, reactions and inactions, your joys and sorrows and your successes and failures. They take control of your life, your body, mind and senses. They define your personality, your ego consciousness, your identity and your destiny. They also limit your freedom and your awareness.

Loss of material possession

We all know (though oftentimes deny it) that no matter how hard we try, no things and beings can last for ever. They are transitory in nature and all living and non-living possessions are created with an expiry date.  We experience a great comfort with the known and the familiar, and begin to fear letting go into what we cannot know or control. If we lose the things and people that support our identities, we are stepping out into the unknown. Instead of addressing this fear, we clamp down on ourselves and the people around us, wanting everything to stay just as it is.[6]

Study of the natural disaster victims who lost all their material possessions showed that they experience a loss of personal self. Kessler & McLeod (1984) found that those who lost possessions to a mudslide went through a process of grief similar to that of losing a loved one. They go through the phases of denial to anger, to depression, and finally to acceptance of the loss (in the long term) [and ultimately the finding of a truer self – Ed.] As George Simmel (1950) observed that material property is an extension of the ego, and any loss or interference with our property is often taken as a violation of the self.

Another instance in which non-voluntary loss of possessions may bring about a diminished sense of self is when possessions are lost to theft or casualty. In the case of burglary victims, Rosenblatt, Walsh, and Jackson (1976) suggested that a process of grief and mourning may follow the discovery of theft, just as one might grieve and mourn the death of a loved one who had been a part of one's life. What is lost in this case also may be as if a part of ourselves is lost.

Freedom from material attachments

It is important to come out of the 'having' mode to be happy and have a better quality of life. People who are constantly engaged in acquisition mode are always dissatisfied as one is never contended with whatever one has. Their thirst to have more can never be quenched, at times their desire to have more takes a pathological proportion and it becomes a trap for them.

In today's world many of the material possessions are replaced by virtual possessions. Many objects are losing their material form, such as books, music, photos and money. In addition, there are other things which never existed earlier in material form, like video games, e-mails, social internet sites and virtual friends, which people psychologically consider and claim as their own. People get attached to these virtual possessions as much, or even more, than physsical possessions, which become part of their self (Siddiqui and Turley, 2006). Many psychological studies have focused on the ways to move away from this trap. It proves that 'possession' (and other emotions) is an aspect of the mind, not of the objects that are possessed. (A piece of stone called a 'murti' knows noting of its own so-called holiness.)

One of the resolutions is to focus on the inner side of one's being, i.e., he inner being. Not on the things of value of the outer world remain standing on realizing the potential of the inner being. This being mode is  rooted in love and is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. It is the opposite of the material experience: the present dominance of the possession mode is bringing the world remains standing to the edge of disaster (ecological, social and psychological). Erich Fromm (1976) had argued that only a fundamental change in human character 'from a preponderance of the having mode to a preponderance of the being mode of existence can save us from a psychological and economic catastrophe' and puts some ways forward. Most of the spiritual philosophies of the Asian region have debated the ways through which people can move out of the self-destructive mode of wanting to have more and more of what one possess and lead a life of contentment.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. London: Cambridge University Press.

Dittmar, H. (1992). The social psychology of material possessions:  To have is to be. New York:  St. Martin Press.

Ellis, L. (1985). On the rudiments of possessions and property. Social Science Information, 24 (1), 113-143

Fromm, Eric (1976). To have or to Be. London: Abacus.

James, William (1890). Principles of psychology. Cambridge, MAS: Harvard University Press. 

Kessler, Ronald C. and Jane D. McLeod. 1984. Sex differences in vulnerability to undesirable life events. American Sociological Review, 49, 620-631.

Litwinski, L. (1942). Is there an instinct of possession? British Journal of Psychology, 33(1),    28-39.

McDougall, William (1908/1923). Introduction to social psychology. London: Mathuen.

Rosenblatt, P., Walsh,  R. P., & Jackson, D. A. (1976). Grief and mourning in cross-cultural perspective. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness. San Francisco:  Freeman.

Siddiqui, S. & Turley, D. (2010). Extending the self in a virtual world. Advances in Consumer Research, 36, 646-648.

Simmel,G. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Transl., edited and introduced by K. H.Wolff. New York: Free Press.

Wilpert, B. (1991). Property, ownership, and participation: On the growing contradictions between legal and psychological concepts. In R. Russell & V. Rus (Eds.), International handbook of participation in organizations: For the study of organizational democracy, coo-operation, and self-management (pp. 149-164). New York: Oxford University Press.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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