What Is Consumer Mentality?

Everybody talks about “consumer mentality” but almost nobody can provide a concrete definition. People know that consumer mentality is something vaguely bad and that the appropriate facial expression when the words are pronounced is a condescending wince. Most of them , however, have no idea what they are wincing at.

As somebody who has lived both in a society of consumers and in a pre-consumerist society, I can tell you that consumerism is vastly superior to its alternative. This is why I always proudly declare that I have a consumer mentality. 

Consumer mentality is the expectation that goods and services will be available to satisfy your needs. If you come home, turn on the lights, and there is no electricity, a person with consumer mentality immediately thinks, “WTF? I’m paying for the service, I’d better be getting it”, starts calling the electrical company and demanding to know what’s going on. And a person with pre-capitalist mentality finds a candle and sits there staring at it without protesting and trying to figure out what happened. I grew up among such people, and let me tell you, such societies suck. 

If a person with consumer mentality buys a pair of shoes and they start leaking the next day, s/he will go back to the store, return the shoes, and write an angry review online. A person with consumer mentality believes that such a situation is not normal. 

If a person with consumer mentality discovers that there are shortages of oranges or notebooks or tablet devices, s/he will not perceive such a situation as normal. The passive acquiescence and fatalism of the pre-capitalist mentality are not natural to a consumer deprived of goods.

Consumer societies get a lot of flak because their members only abandon fatalism and passivity when they want their goods and services. A consumer sees the world in terms of goods and services to be purchased and gets unhappy when anything gets between the consumer and the purchase. However, any criticism of consumerist societies arises from comparing consumers to a non-existent lofty ideal and not to actual existing alternatives. I believe that it is already an enormously big deal that human beings have abandoned the attitude of patient resignation at least in one sphere of their lives. 

People who detest consumerism the most are those who have come out from a very strong monotheistic model and are now displacing their religious feelings away from the religion they abandoned and onto the secular world. The lack of self-abnegation and modesty that consumers exhibit hurts the religious sensibilities of such recent converts to secularism. If you observe the most passionate detractors of consumerism closely, you will see that they exhibit many of the signs of religious fanaticism. However, consumerism is hard to resist. Try depriving these passionate anti-consumerist bunnies of running water for a week or of their favorite designer tea for a day, and you will see an irate consumer awaken in each one of them.

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62 thoughts on “What Is Consumer Mentality?”

  1. Very interesting! I was born in India in the mid eighties and grew up as the country transformed (and is still transforming) into a consumerist country post 1991. I tend to vacillate between the two modes never quite sure which one is appropriate in which situation. 🙂

    Consumerism irks me most when it enters spaces like teaching or interpersonal relationships.

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  2. The danger of a consumer mentality, in my opinion, is seeing _everything_ as a commodity. So for instance, some things—like police protection or firefighting services—should be guaranteed to all citizens, no matter how poor. Not something—like a new pair of shoes—only available to those who can pay.

    Another place where I worry about a “consumer mentality” is in the field of education. When students are referred to/ start thinking of themselves as “consumers,” education is frequently compromised. Students are paying for me to be well-prepared, to know my material, to have credentials etc. etc. But they aren’t necessarily paying for an “A” in the class and they certainly shouldn’t be able to dictate what sort of assignments/readings I, in my expertise, assign.

    So I agree with you that a consumer mentality can result in some positive behaviors/expectations. But I personally think that it’s dangerous to commodify all social services.

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    1. I don’t believe anybody treats students as customers. If only it were true! If anybody consulted students about banning textbooks, moving classes online, destroying tenure, students would be completely opposed. And colleges are not run as businesses either. If only they were!

      I believe it is crucial to remember that students are customers. And it makes sense to consult them before cutting down on instructional funds to build some stupid multiculturalism center.

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      1. And what if students want more money going to a football team instead of the library? Would that be an example of the “customer is always right?”

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  3. I think it’s important to make a difference between elementary goods (running water and electricity) and the cancer-like nature of consumerism. Consumerism can’t be represented with a constant but with an exponentially growing curve. Consumerism doesn’t mean that you need two pairs of good shoes and you are concerned about the quality. It means that sooner or later you won’t be happy with the two pairs of good shoes, but you want three, four, five and seventeen. Consumerism means that at first you only want to write an angry review when there were coakroaches in your bed in the hotel room and the drunken janitor puked on your coat, later your demands will began to grow, and you will be revolted when the overwhelmed cleaning woman didn’t smile wide enough, or you didn’t like the pattern of the wallpaper. Consumer mentality is the cause why the customer service and sales jobs are among the most dreaded ones. It is the cause why the 40% of people on the West can only bear their lives with the help of pills or drugs. It’s consumerism what make empty vessels of them. It’s consumerism why they want to kill themselves because of the unbearable pressure in their workplaces. Consumerism is the cause why the whole environment is dying like a thirsty dog in the desert. Consumerism is a fucking big bubble which wants to grow infinitely inside a finite space which is called Earth. It won’t. The cancerlike nature is the problem, not that you don’t want to live like a pauper. The cancer cells eat up the whole body, after they also die.

    The other thing is that consumerism lead to a significant decay in the quality of goods. I know many people who bought their washing machine in the 80s and they still use it. In Hungary I used a washing machine which was older than me, and it washed everything perfectly, I never had to call anyone to fix it. I could have afforded a brand new washing machine easily, but the old one was perfect, why would I have done that? In a consumerist country you won’t find a washing machine like that. When real (qualified) shoemakers made the shoes people wore them at least for 10 years, and they didn’t leak. Now when 10 years old child workers make them in Bangladeshi factories, while their supervisors regularly beat them and force them to urinate into plastic bags under their working tables, there are serious problems with the quality.

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    1. “I think “consumer mentality” refers to the conviction that buying things one does not need or want will magically solve all ones emotional problems.”

      – Not all, just very specific ones.

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      1. // “I think “consumer mentality” refers to the conviction that buying things one does not need or want will magically solve all ones emotional problems.”
        – Not all, just very specific ones.

        For instance?

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        1. “// “I think “consumer mentality” refers to the conviction that buying things one does not need or want will magically solve all ones emotional problems.”
          – Not all, just very specific ones.For instance?”

          – The need to accumulate objects in your possession is anal-stage traumas. Which have zero to do with consumerism or anything of the kind.

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  4. What a load of crap.
    So what if my demands begin to grow? I give 2 or 3 star reviews to restaurants who serve me food that’s just OK because there’s always a restaurant down the street that can serve me something amazing. High standards, aggressive competition, and unbiased reviews are why U.S. cities have the best restaurants in the world.

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    1. High standards, aggressive competition, and “unbiased” reviews are why U.S. cities have the most mentally ill, frustrated, grief eating (therefore overweight) and drug addict people in the world. I give 5 star reviews to every restaurant where the cutlery is not dirty and the food is eatable. I don’t want always “amazing” food and stuff, that would killed my imagination and creativity in about 5 seconds.

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      1. “High standards, aggressive competition, and “unbiased” reviews are why U.S. cities have the most mentally ill, frustrated, grief eating (therefore overweight) and drug addict people in the world.”

        – Have you ever been to Russia? 🙂 🙂

        Look, American “mental illness” is wide-spread because rich people can afford to pay attention to their emotional states. Americans like to whine and feel sorry for themselves, but for the most part, they are very content, happy, and enjoying themselves. The last group of people on this planet I’d worry about is Americans.

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      2. “Have you ever been to Russia?”
        No, but I dreamed a lot about it. Once I decided to travel through it by the Trans-Siberian Express, but I never realized it. Russia has its own problems which doesn’t mean that consumer mentality is okay. Just like one crime doesn’t justify another one.

        “The last group of people on this planet I’d worry about is Americans.”
        It’s not the Americans who are most hurted by the western consumer mentality. The problem is rather the aggressive resource draining. That the population of the United States is only the 5% of the world’s whole population, but they consume the 30% of the resources of the Earth. I don’t speak about money, money is only a fiction which is good for nothing on its own. I speak about resources which are finite. Consumer mentality bases on the concept of the eternal economical growth. Infinite growth inside a finite system. An insoluble mathematical problem. If you can provide the solution for it, I will maybe see consumerism in a different light 🙂

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        1. When there was nowhere else to grow in terms of manufacture and the world experienced the economic crisis of the 1970 s, Americans invented the Internet and took their expansion there. Tomorrow they will invent something else. Our resources are, indeed, limitless because human imagination is limitless.

          The discussion has shifted away from consumer mentality (or any mentality) and towards the topic of capitalism. I don’t mind discussing capitalism but let’s be careful with our terminology.

          The consciousness that “this can’t last, the end is near” has followed humanity since it climbed off the trees and got a consciousness. For millenia, human beings are massively convinced that the end of the world is near. I’ve studied these apocalyptic visions enough to feel nothing but boredom when I encounter yet one more. There are innumerable places in the world when one could go today and live there without capitalism, consumerism, toilet paper and computers. Yet nobody is doing that. Instead, everybody complains about how much others are consuming on the way to do some shopping.

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      3. “When there was nowhere else to grow in terms of manufacture and the world experienced the economic crisis of the 1970 s, Americans invented the Internet and took their expansion there. Tomorrow they will invent something else. Our resources are, indeed, limitless because human imagination is limitless.”
        As far as I know the idea of the internet was firstly published in the CERN in Switzerland. It’s a pity however it’s neither edible nor breathable. It also won’t fuel cars and machines. Human imagination maybe limitless but natural resources are not. Their limits can be pretty precisely measured.

        “The consciousness that “this can’t last, the end is near” has followed humanity since it climbed off the trees and got a consciousness. For millenia, human beings are massively convinced that the end of the world is near.”
        Currently the economic, environmental and demographic numbers are quite concrete. And obviously the end will only come once. There will hardly be any chance to lament about it afterwards.

        “I’ve studied these apocalyptic visions enough to feel nothing but boredom when I encounter yet one more.”
        How do you feel about overpopulation?

        “There are innumerable places in the world when one could go today and live there without capitalism, consumerism, toilet paper and computers. Yet nobody is doing that.”
        Because people don’t want to live in squalor. That doesn’t justify the current way of consumerism (and I don’t talk about toilet paper here). Both squalor and current consumerism are extremes. Thinking in the terms of the golden mean would be much better.

        “Instead, everybody complains about how much others are consuming on the way to do some shopping.”
        Nobody told shopping is bad. I talked about the cancer-like nature of consumerism which needs to be addressed because it’s unsustainable (both physically and mentally).

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        1. The worries about overpopulation have existed since the times of Malthus. He was a hugely bestselling author beloved by the contemporary doom and gloomers. 🙂

          I’m not into apocalyptic narratives, I don’t see what useful purpose they could serve in my life. I know they are hugely popular but they are just not my thing. My goal is always to say something new about an issue and start a discussion that departs from the usual platitudes on any given subject. I’m often unsuccessful in this project but at least I’m trying.

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    1. No, it’s a complex mathematical, philosophical and environmental problem which needs to be addressed, because resources will run out soon. The question is not how you use your money, but how long you can use your money.

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  5. In my opinion, consumer mentality is about the insecurity Eastern European intelligentsia has about a post-communist world that a) utterly stomped communism and b) didn’t take silent dissidents as the moral authority figures we thought we were. We (well,my parents’ generation) feel that insecurity and start complaining about consumer mentality. No idea why the Westerners do it tho.

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    1. Because they are depressed, their motivation is killed, and they need a way to recharge their batteries which have been eaten up by stupid consumerism.

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      1. “Because they are depressed, their motivation is killed, and they need a way to recharge their batteries which have been eaten up by stupid consumerism.”

        – I’m not American. And as an outsider, I can say that Americans are the most motivated, driven, hard-working and accepting people in the world. They are also the whiniest, most self-pitying and most apocalyptically minded people in the world. 🙂 🙂

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  6. @Stille
    The other problem with the so-called EE intelligentsia, that we usually think that it’s only us who are projecting.

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      1. Yes that’s true, but I think it’s necessary to assume the projection on the other party’s behalf too, and “deduct” it from their arguments, as this is the only way to remain fair to yourself.

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  7. @aglaonika Oh, the second law of thermodynamics is definitely one of the defining things of the universe (I find it easier to think in terms of energy than matter). However, human brains are very bad at thinking about thermodynamics and very good at thinking about social dynamics, and they have a tendency to use the module they’re best at rather than the module that applies best to the situation, so when the issue discussed is something that triggers strong emotions in the participants, there’s a good case to be made that people are thinking about it in terms of their own neuroses rather than physics or math. If I were to think of it in as much math terms as I can, I’d say that my computational optimization background predisposes me into thinking that smarts can replace resources but that I won’t know the precise exchange rate (or the sort of function used for exchange) until I study the problem more deeply and the problem is huge, so there’s no way I can have a justified opinion either way about this subject as long as I’m basing it on maths rather than my own psychological issues.

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    1. @Stille
      I could never phrase it that nicely that I have no idea about the solution :D. A big upvote for you. I have to learn this kind of wording, it sounds pretty cool. Are you a physicist?

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  8. Ah, Hope that wasn’t directed to me, because I may have used that term recently, but I only mean it in a philosophical sense, which is very nuanced. It refers to passivity. We all have two sides, a passive and active side and sometimes it is easier to be a suckling babe and to sit back and expect to be catered to. Here is a short extract from Nietzsche where he addresses this inclination ironically.

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      1. Oh, I wasn’t getting paranoid at all, but I just had the sense that I used the terminology very recently, perhaps even on your blog. My use of the term is psychological and nuanced.

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  9. Actually, a sensible consumer will still get out the candle and or battery operated flashlight/radio/etc. Then they will find out why the electricity is down.

    A consumer mentality, like other mentality, is best modified by moderation and common sense. It is wonderful to have choices when one has the money to spend. It is good too to know how to enjoy life without endless purchases of things one doesn’t need. Time spent with friends is better than buying some high-status gew-gaw you don’t need or use for any practical purpose. It sucks to get into debt and lose your peace of mind.

    At this time of year, excessive consumer mentality can run counter to religious and family feeling. If you stress out too much on buying exactly the right gifts and a lot of them to boot, you lose the spirit of thankfulness and you lose sight of the pleasures of just sitting with family and friends and enjoying each others’ company over a leisurely meal. You may not remember to make out those donations to the needy and to charity, which do make the donor feel good. Again, this is all a matter of moderation.

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      1. What, I am sounding too much like an Old Fart like Polonius? Or the Scrooge who wants Christmas decorations and public-area Muzak to be confined approximately to the Advent season so we can sit on our duffs at Thanksgiving (an actual holiday separate from Christmas) and enjoy Thanksgiving meal and company instead of rushing out after turkey and mobbing Wal-Mart and making some other poor sod leave their family table and wait on you? “Get off my lawn!!!” ” I walked 6 miles to school, uphill both directions.” 😉 I am not really a Scrooge, but I do prefer to see smiles rather than stressed-out OMGIcantbelievehowmuchstuffIneedtodoandhowfarindebtIam expressions at the Christmas holiday. It’s grand to have a groaning board and a lot of gifts, but if you, the person behind all that, are in a seriously bad mood, for heaven’s sake, scale back a bit until you can smile. Call it the Type B Christmas.

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      1. Yes, and like I say my views are psychological and nuanced. I use the term “selfish taker” to describe someone who is only in a take mentality and does not consider the other side of the coin, which is the give mentality. Unless you have both sides, and they are well-balanced you are not really a full human being.

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          1. You come from a different culture and your comparison points are different. I come from a Spartan culture in every sense (warlike but pretty sparse), so I viscerally despise the whining and complaining passive aspects of Western culture.

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    1. Thanks for posting this video, musteryou. Albeit it’s not related to the current topic, but it helped me understand something important about my personal life I’ve been thinking on for a very long time. I just listened to the man, and the solution popped up in my mind. Thank you very much, you helped me a lot today.

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      1. Oh well that is very good. I think it is largely related to the current topic in that my working life has been blighted by narcissists. They pick on very tiny issues as if that were the whole, and then work their way into you like insects boring a hole into your skull through their persistence.

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        1. Yes, that’s so true. Since narcissists have nothing more important to do, they will exercise extreme persistence in their persecution of those they want to give them attention. The tiny issues part is also true. They break everything up into minutest particles and hammer on each one. Any attempt to get them to see the larger picture is just useless.

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          1. And they can be menaces if they don’t like the whiff of you in the workplace. They keep pursuing you doggedly with their petty complaints, indicating that they would surely be satisfied if only you changed something slightly. But the minute you comply, you are pulled into their game and they will say your interpretation of their complaint was not at all what they meant, they actually meant something else. Then you have to listen even more carefully as they go on and on and on about their needs. In the end, the boss does not think it worth it to cater with the consumer-narcissists and their petty complaints about you, so you lose your job;

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      2. I’m sorry, that could be though. I mainly met them in my personal life. One of them was my mother. She also behaved in a horrible way in her workplace. Her employees either ended up in the psychiatry or quit. She just ruined them and I know all the stories well, because at home she actually bragged about it if it had been a heroic act.

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  10. I think that there exist people who prefer happiness or wisdom rather than pleasure or luxury. What if the bare essentials of food, shelter and clothing were human rights? If you want more than the bare essentials, you could choose to work with others. Right now, there really isn’t a choice. If you don’t make the pursuit of wealth your sub goal or help the wealthy make more money, you can die. This is especially true in the third world.

    I don’t think everyone would choose material goods as a sub goal or goal in life.

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