Conspicuous consumption

Conspicuous consumption is a term introduced by the American economist Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Conspicuous consumption is a symptom observed in individuals in any society where over-consumption has become a social norm or expectation. The term is not used to describe such personal disorders as eating disorders, but is generally reserved for those forms of consumption that seem to be fully motivated by social factors.


Regarded as an addiction

It has been discussed widely since the 1960s, including most often as a form of addiction arising from consumerism but also from productivism where this encourages the production of excess unwanted goods, which must be consumed to justify continued production. More recently it has been implicated as a cause of obesity, and of some mental illness especially bulimia. Some consider it to be a world health problem, especially in developed nations. Political movements, e.g. the Greens, have specifically criticized waste-promoting policies (e.g. the dirty subsidy) that encourage over-consumption.


In marketing-terminology the term conspicuous consumption refers to the consumption of goods for the sake of displaying wealth, power, or prestige to others. Usually it denotes luxury goods that are expensive rather than cheap everyday items.

In the context of psychoactive substances

Some link this also to chemical addiction, arguing that self-titration of psychoactive substances, or "self-medication", becomes near-pandemic in cultures where pleasure-seeking behaviors have reached such pathological proportions. Inflamed hedonic expectations among the affected population can then result in normalizing of anti-social, borderline and narcissistic behaviors as economic and political processes, e.g. a "moral panic" leading to mob violence, support for religious fundamentalism, or an unexamined push to a war. An alternate view is that most civilizations have accepted one or more drugs of choice and embedded them into their society, e.g. caffeine, coca, alcohol, tobacco, peyote, cannabis, and that it is encounters with strange poorly-socialized drugs that lead in general to these unpredictable behaviors, not the consumption urge as such. Historically, epidemics of pathological consumption among large groups have ended when a group exhausted available resources or when the pathology of consumption led to self-destructive behavior.

A possible historical case: Easter Island

Historically, epidemics of pathological consumption among large groups have ended when a group exhausted available resources or when the pathology of consumption led to self-destructive behavior. For instance, anthropologists believe that Easter Island became depopulated because its warring tribes eventually cut down all of each other's trees, which destroyed its ecology - the trees of course were not wasted necessarily but consumed as fuel, or to make war canoes.

Applications in activism

An extreme view is that over-consumption threatens emotional destabilization of the global population, and that behavioral health professionals need to document and analyze the large group etiology that develops a subculture of pathological self-medication. This is seen to have impacts far beyond the immediate consumer group. While resources to confront the crisis must be developed within geographic areas inhabited by the affected population, interest and motivation is often prompted and facilitated by efforts from outside the areas most affected. Such methods as boycotts or moral purchasing, for instance, often exclude dealings with a population pathologically consuming an ecosystem or species - these are often successful at ending such consumption, e.g. European Union boycotts of Canadian seal fur from the Newfoundland seal hunt.

See also

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