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Shows like ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ may be turning viewers against welfare programs

A new study suggests that viewing materialistic media—even for a minute—can influence people to harbor stronger anti-welfare attitudes.
Kim Kardashian in New York City. (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Harper's BAZAAR)

Imagine you’re scrolling through TV channels and decide to watch ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ for a minute. On the screen you see images of material wealth: a custom Mercedes, designer clothes, the interior of a Studio City mansion. You turn off the TV.

Would your attitudes toward welfare programs have changed compared to a minute before?

The likely answer is yes, suggests a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science that shows how viewing materialistic media—even for a minute—can influence people to harbor stronger anti-welfare attitudes.

“Humans are inherently materialistic but also very social and communal,” study author Rodolfo Leyva of LSE’s Department of Media and Communications told The Telegraph.

“The way this is expressed depends on our culture. If there is more emphasis on materialism as a way to be happy, this makes us more inclined to be selfish and anti-social, and therefore unsympathetic to people less fortunate.”

For the study, 487 British adults aged 18 to 49 were asked to participate in a randomized-control web-survey experiment that was advertised as a memory and attention test. In reality, the study measured how viewing materialistic media affects people’s attitudes on welfare.

The participants were divided into two groups, unbeknown to them.

One was shown a dozen images focused on wealth and materialism, like ads for luxury products, celebrities with expensive goods, and newspaper headlines of rags-to-riches stories. The other group was shown neutral stimuli: ads about the London underground, nature scenery and newspaper stories about dinosaurs.

After seeing the images, the participants were asked about their attitudes toward wealth, success, government benefits and the poor. Then they were asked for their opinions on hypothetical public policies, which were modeled after “actual UK government tax cuts, austerity measures, and welfare reforms that according to extensive policy research, have had detrimental effects on welfare institutions and beneficiaries.”

The results showed that people who viewed the materialistic images prior to answering the questions expressed significantly higher anti-welfare sentiments—even though they had only viewed the photos for 60 seconds.

Of course, the participants came to the experiment with their own biases and attitudes on welfare. But interestingly, the researchers also asked participants to report the kinds of media they regularly consume in their daily lives, like how often they watched TV shows such as ‘The Apprentice’, ‘X-Factor’, ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ and ‘Made in Chelsea’, and how often they read publications like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, GQ and Esquire, all of which regularly feature stories on celebrities.

The results showed that people who regularly viewed shows like ‘The Apprentice’ were found to hold significantly “stronger materialistic and anti-welfare attitudes than lighter consumers of these shows.”

“In advanced market societies, cultural representations and endorsements of materialism, such as the promotion and glorification of fame, fortune, and conspicuous consumption, are particularly endemic in and promulgated by commercial media,” the paper reads. “Indeed, the ubiquity of materialistic media messages (MMMs) is beneficial if not critical to the gross domestic product growth of contemporary capitalist economies, given that this ubiquity helps stimulate consumption.”

“Yet irrespective of the positive economic contributions of MMMs, frequent exposure to them is being increasingly connected to several troubling trends and adverse effects. For example, UK psychology studies have found that internalizing the media-culture ideals of materialism increases body dissatisfaction in women and decreases well-being in children. In a similar vein, US media studies show that heavy consumption of MMMs is related to increased levels of stress, life dissatisfaction, and anxiety.”


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