When Marsha Richins started researching materialism in the early 1990s, it was a subject that had mostly been left to philosophers and religious thinkers. In the intervening decades, Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business, and others have contributed a good deal of academic research that backs up some of the wariness people have, for millennia, expressed about the pursuit of worldly things.
One focus of Richins’s research has been how that pursuit begins in childhood, and in particular accelerates in middle school. That’s the time when kids, on average, give the most materialistic responses to the question of what makes them happy. In a paper published last year, Richins described how the social dynamics of middle school can lead children to place more importance on owning and having things. (Movies, TV, the internet, media, advertising, and parents’ own habits, of course, can have similar effects.)
I recently spoke with Richins about this process, as well as the challenges, for parents, of providing counter-programming to middle school’s codes of behavior. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.