Deborah Roedder John

A Fresh Look at the Teenage Material World

Friday, April 1, 2011


Here’s a remarkable statistic: According to, the buying power of U.S. children between ages 12 and 19 increased by 27.7 percent between 2001 and 2006 to more than $180 billion.

Deborah Roedder John, Carlson School professor of Marketing and holder of the Curtis L. Carlson Chair, says those figures point to a larger trend. “During the past 20 to 30 years, teens have become more materialistic—and more focused on brands, status symbols, and designer products,” she notes.

John, who has long had an interest in the ways that marketing affects materialism in children and adolescents, recently teamed up with Lan Nguyen Chaplin from Villanova University and Aric Rindfleisch from the University of Wisconsin, Madison to conduct a pair of studies on the topic. “In the first study, we conducted a survey of 870 adolescents across all regions in the United States and all demographic groups,” says John. “We asked one set of questions to determine the level of materialism among respondents, and another to determine their relative levels of gratitude.”

The first study established that the more the respondents experienced gratitude in their lives, the less materialistic they were. For the second study, the researchers conducted an experiment to see if they could actually affect the level of materialism among adolescents by encouraging gratitude.

It demonstrated that gratitude not only decreases people's level of materialism, but it can also increase their generosity.

Deborah Roedder John

Sixty-one adolescents were enlisted to participate. After completing the survey used in the first study, participants were randomly divided into two groups. The first group was instructed to keep a journal for two weeks and record things they were grateful for each day. The second group was instructed to simply record their daily events for two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, all participants were tested again. And each was given 10 $1 bills. They were told they could keep the money all for themselves or donate some portion of it to a charity on their way out of the building.

“The results of the first study were promising in terms of establishing a correlation between gratitude and materialism,” says John. “But the second study was really quite remarkable. It demonstrated that gratitude not only decreases peoples’ level of materialism, but it can also increase their generosity.”

Participants who kept the gratitude journals tested much lower for indicators of materialism—and they donated an average of 60 percent (or $2.58) more than participants in the control group.