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Living in a Material World: Materialistic Teenagers Exhibit Lower Motivation and Academic Performance

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Materialism certainly isn’t a new term or label. What is new, however, is the possible link between materialism and motivation, learning, and performance in schools. Dictionary.com defines materialism as “preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values.” There have been songs by artists like Madonna, movies such as Clueless and Valley Girls, and countless reality TV shows speaking of and celebrating this thing we call materialism. Researchers gathered cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from both the United Kingdom and Hong Kong on the subject of materialism and academic performance.


They wished to find out if materialism had any correlation with mastery and achievement goals, motivation, and academic performance. The researchers proposed that “…teenagers’ materialistic values are associated with lower intrinsic, mastery-oriented learning goals and with higher extrinsic, performance-oriented achievement goals” (Dittmar & Banerjee, p. 75).

In the first study, teenagers from two different educational levels, year 9 and year 12; and two different cultures, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom; were placed in four groups that were included in a study that tested the association between materialism, achievement goals, and performance on standardized tests. This study had surprising results. Materialism is associated with decreased mastery goals and increased performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals in all of the four groups. The researchers then conducted a longitudinal follow-up in Hong Kong to look for evidence of a causal relationship.

A total of 228 out of 320 students from the original study were successfully contacted and agreed to participate in the second study. In this study, the students were now year 10 and year 13 students. The second study showed that valuing materialism earlier in life linked to and explained decreases in intrinsic mastery goals and an increase in performance goals after a year.

Anything, no matter how ridiculous or insignificant it may seem, that affects motivation, learning, and performance in school should be a concern to educators. It is very important to know what factors can affect a student’s academics and how to handle and find a solution to those factors. We have a media that constantly glorifies and celebrates materialism. Students are constantly being told that materialism is fun and “normal”. Whether or not we agree on whether materialism is a negative or positive trait, when it comes to affecting academic performance we must intervene if it has negative effects on motivation and academic performance. So, what can be done?

By: Hannah Stephens, pre-service teacher, NCSU


Ku, L., Dittmar, H., & Banerjee, R. (2012). Are materialistic teenagers less motivated to learn? Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 74.