Materialism Psychology Essay Samples

In January 1848, James Marshall was building a sawmill by a river near present day Sacramento when he found a piece of glowing metal on the floor, which turned out to be gold. Within a few weeks, once rumours of the discovery had spread, tens of thousands of people were flocking to the area, struck by ‘gold fever.' Ships were abandoned all over the California coast, businesses closed down, and whole towns became deserted. In a little over a year, San Francisco grew from shanty town of 79 buildings to a city of tens of thousands. Over the next few years, at least 300,000 gold seekers came to California.

The effect on the Native Americans of California was catastrophic. They were driven off their traditional hunting and gathering grounds, and their rivers were polluted by gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from the new mines. Some Indian groups used force to try to protect their lands, but were massacred by the miners. Those who weren't killed by the miners slowly starved to death, or died from diseases passed on by the immigrants. Others were kept as slaves, while attractive young women were carried off to be sold. As a result, the Californian Native American population fell from around 150,000 in 1845 to 30,000 in 1870.

This savage materialism was typical of European immigrants' attitude to the ‘New World' of America. They saw it as a treasure-house of resources to ransack, and saw the native population as an inconvenient obstacle to be eradicated.

Some tribes were so confused by the colonists' insatiable desire for gold that they believed that the metal must be a kind of deity with supernatural powers. Why else would they go to such lengths to get hold of it? When an Indian chief in Cuba learned that Spanish sailors were about to attack his island, he started to pray to a chest full of gold, appealing to the ‘gold spirit' which he believed they worshipped. But the ‘gold spirit' didn't show him any mercy - the sailors invaded the island, captured the chief and burned him alive.

Modern Materialism

In some ways the gold diggers' rampant materialism was understandable, since they were living at a time of great poverty, and for many of them gold digging seemed to offer an escape from starvation. But most of us in the western, industrialized world don't have that excuse. Our appetite for wealth and material goods isn't driven by hardship, but by our own inner discontent. We're convinced that we can buy our way to happiness, that wealth is the path to permanent fulfilment and well-being. We still measure ‘success' in terms of the quality and price of the material goods we can buy, or in the size of our salaries.

Our mad materialism would be more forgivable if there was evidence that material goods and wealth do lead to happiness. But all the evidence fails to show this. Study after study by psychologists has shown that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The only exception is in cases of real poverty, when extra income does relieve suffering and brings security. But once our basic material needs are satisfied, our level of income makes little difference to our level of happiness. Research has shown, for example, that extremely rich people such as billionaires are not significantly happier than people with an average income, and suffer from higher levels of depression. Researchers in positive psychology have concluded that true well-being does not come from wealth but from other factors such as good relationships, meaningful and challenging jobs or hobbies, and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves (such as a religion, a political or social cause, or a sense of mission).

Explanations for Materialism

Many economists and politicians believe that acquisitiveness - the impulse to buy and possess things - is natural to human beings. This seems to make sense in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution: since natural resources are limited, human beings have to compete over them, and try to claim as large a part of them as possible.

One of the problems with this theory is that there is actually nothing ‘natural' about the desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, this desire would have been disastrous for earlier human beings. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers - small tribes who would usually move to a different site every few months. As we can see from modern hunter-gatherers, this way of life has to be non-materialistic, because people can't afford to be weighed down with unnecessary goods. Since they moved every few months, unnecessary goods would simply be a hindrance to them, making it more difficult for them to move.

Another theory is that the restlessness and constant wanting which fuels our materialism is a kind of evolutionary mechanism which keeps us in a state of alertness. (The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has suggested this, for example) Dissatisfaction keeps living beings on the look out for ways of improving their chances of survival; if they were satisfied they wouldn't be alert, and other creatures would take the advantage.

But there is no evidence that other animals live in a state of restless dissatisfaction. On the contrary, many animals seem to very slow and static lives, content to remain within their niche and to follow their instinctive patterns of behaviour. And if this is what drives our materialism, we would probably expect other animals to be acquisitive too. But again, there is no evidence that - apart from some food-hoarding for the winter months - other animals share our materialistic impulses. If it was necessary for living beings to be restless and constantly wanting then evolution would surely have ground to a half millions of years ago.

In my view, acquisitiveness is best understood in psychological terms. Our mad materialism is partly a reaction to inner discontent. As human beings' it's normally for us to experience an underlying ‘psychological discord', caused by the incessant chattering of our minds, which creates a disturbance inside us, and often triggers negative thoughts. Another source of ‘psychological discord' is the strong sense of separateness many of us feel, the sense of being isolated individuals living in a world which is ‘out there', on the other side of our heads.

We look to external things to try to alleviate our inner discontent. Materialism certainly can give us a kind of happiness - the temporary thrill of buying something new, and the ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterwards. And we use this kind of happiness to try to override - or compensate for - the fundamental unhappiness inside us.

In addition, our desire for wealth is a reaction to the sense of lack and vulnerability generated by our sense of separation. This generates a desire to makes ourselves more whole, more significant and powerful. We try to ‘bolster' our fragile egos and make ourselves feel more complete by accumulating wealth and possessions.

It doesn't work, of course - or at least, it only works for a very short time. The happiness of buying or owning a new item rarely lasts longer than a couple of days. The sense of ego-inflation generated by wealth or expensive possessions can be more enduring, but it's very fragile too. It depends on comparing yourself to other people who aren't as well off as you, and evaporates if you compare yourself to someone who is wealthier than you. And no matter how much we try to complete or bolster our ego, our inner discontent and incompleteness always re-emerges, generating new desires. No matter how much we get, it's never enough. As Buddhism teaches, desires are inexhaustible. The satisfaction of one desire just creates new desires, like a cell multiplying.

The only real way of alleviating this psychological discord is not by trying to escape it, but by trying to heal it - which will have to be subject of another blog.

Steve Taylor is a psychological lecturer and the author os several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality, including The Fall, Waking From Sleep and Out of the Darkness. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness happening at the present time.' His website is

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Mind Body Debate

Saul McLeod published 2007

The mind is about mental processes, thought and consciousness. The body is about the physical aspects of the brain-neurons and how the brain is structured. The mind-body problem is about how these two interact.

One of the central questions in psychology (and philosophy) concerns the mind/body problem: is the mind part of the body, or the body part of the mind? If they are distinct, then how do they interact? And which of the two is in charge?

Many theories have been put forward to explain the relationship between what we call your mind (defined as the conscious thinking 'you' which experiences your thoughts) and your brain (i.e. part of your body).

However, the most common explanation concerns the question of whether the mind and body are separate or the same thing.


Human beings are material objects. We have weight, solidity and consist of a variety of solids, liquids and gases. However, unlike other material objects (e.g. rocks) humans also have the ability to form judgments and reason their existence. In short we have 'minds'.

Typically humans are characterized as having both a mind (nonphysical) and body/brain (physical).  This is known as dualism.  Dualism is the view that the mind and body both exist as separate entities.

Descartes / Cartesian dualism argues that there is a two-way interaction between mental and physical substances.

Descartes argued that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been uni-directional.


There are two basic types of monism:

    o Materialism is the belief that nothing exists apart from the material world (i.e. physical matter like the brain); materialist psychologists generally agree that consciousness (the mind) is the function of the brain. Mental processes can be identified with purely physical processes in the central nervous system, and that human beings are just complicated physiological organisms, no more than that.

    o Phenomenalism (also called Subjective Idealism) believes that physical objects and events are reducible to mental objects, properties, events. Ultimately, only mental objects (i.e. the mind) exist. Bishop Berkeley claimed that what we think of as our body is merely the perception of mind. Before you reject this too rapidly consider the results of a recent study.

    Scientists asked three hemiplegic (i.e. loss of movement from one side of the body) stroke victims with damage to the right hemispheres of their brains about their abilities to move their arms. All three claimed, despite evidence to the contrary in the mirror in front of them, that they could move their right and left hands equally well. Further, two of the three stroke victims claimed that an experimental stooge who faked paralysis (i.e. lack of movement) of his left arm was able to move his arm satisfactorily.

Psychology & the Mind Body Debate

The different approaches to psychology take contrasting views to whether the mind and body are separate or related.  Thinking (having freedom of choice) is a mental event, yet can cause behavior to occur (muscles move in response to a thought).  Thinking can therefore be said to make things happen, "mind moves matter".

Behaviorists believe that psychology should only be concerned with "observable actions", namely stimulus and response.  They believe that thought processes such as the mind cannot be studied scientifically and objectively and should therefore be ignored. Radical behaviorists believe that the mind does not even exist.

The biologists who argue that the mind does not exist because there is no physical structure called the mind also follow this approach. Biologists argue that the brain will ultimately be found to be the mind. The brain with its structures, cells and neural connections will with scientific research eventually identify the mind.

Since both behaviorists and biologists believe that only one type of reality exists, those that we can see, feel and touch; there approach is known as monism. Monism is the belief that ultimately the mind and the brain are the same thing. The behaviorist and biological approaches believe in materialism monism.

However biologists and behaviorists cannot account for the phenomenon hypnosis. Hilgard and Orne have studied this. They placed participants in a hypnotic trance and through unconscious hypnotic suggestion told the participants they would be touched with a "red hot" piece of metal when they were actually touched with a pencil.

The participants in a deep trance had a skin reaction (water blisters) just as if they had been touched with burning metal. This is an example of the mind controlling the body’s reaction. Similar results have been found on patients given hypnosis to control pain. This contradicts the monism approach, as the body should not react to unconscious suggestions in this way. This study supports the idea of dualism, the view that the mind and body function separately.

In the same way humanists like Carl Rogers would also dispute materialism monism. They believe that subjective experiences are the only way to study human behavior. Humanists are not denying the real world exists rather they believe it is each persons unique subjective approach to defining reality that is important. In the area of mental illness a Schizophrenic might not define their actions as ill, rather they would believe they had insight into some occurrence that no one else had. This is why humanists believe the study of how each person views themselves is essential.

However the problem of the relationship between consciousness and reality from a subjective view has problems. The paranoid schizophrenic who believes the postal service "are agents for the government and trying to kill him" is still mentally ill and needs treatment if they are not to be a danger to themselves or the public.

Recent research from cognitive psychologists has placed a new emphasis on this debate. They have taken the computer analogy of Artificial Intelligence and applied it to this debate. They argue that the brain can be compared to computer hardware that is "wired" or connected to the human body.

The mind is therefore like software, allowing a variety of different software programs: to run. This can account for the different reactions people have to the same stimulus. This idea ties in with cognitive mediational (thinking) processes. In computer analogies we have a new version of dualism which allows us to incorporate modern terms such as computers and software instead of Descartes "I think therefore I am"

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Mind body debate. Retrieved from

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