The Psychosis Called Consumerism

Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast

Richard Heap (2011)

Film Review

Consumed is a British documentary about the psychological basis of what the filmmakers call the “weird mental illness called consumerism” and “a kind of collective psychosis in which people value acquiring objects more than their children, partners or friends.” The film maintains that there are unique evolutionary features in the human species that make us uniquely susceptible to pro-consumption messaging.

The documentary begins by emphasizing the grave implications of “unfettered” consumerism on humankind’s ability to survive on this planet – both from the perspective of ecosystem destruction and growing resource scarcity.

They go on to analyze the primary biological drives that underlie most human behavior: the drive to survive and the drive to reproduce. Most marketing is deliberately aimed towards the latter. People who lack confidence in their ability to attract a mate are bombarded with messaging that they can increase their prestige and status by acquiring specific products.

As people get older, they realize this thinking is delusional: a new Porsche doesn’t make someone fall in love with you as a person. People who hook up with you for your car eventually get bored and leave.

Young people, however, are incredibly susceptible to the pro-consumption delusion. This is why billions are spent on marketing to kids from the moment of birth. Getting pre-teens and teens to think about mating early is also incredibly effective in capturing more of their money (as well as their parents’).

Consumed also examines our psychological disconnection from nature and why this has allowed us to become so indifferent to the environmental devastation caused by our consumption patterns.

The behavioral scientists Heap interviews differ on whether the sustainability movement can save the human species. They all agree it’s pointless to look to politicians – the very epitome of pathological narcissism – for a solution. Several are pessimistic that Transition Towns and similar sustainability-related groups can save us without addressing the root cause of the crisis: our psychology.

Others are more optimistic. Pointing to the 200+ million years humans survived without a multitude of consumer goods, they argue that learning to understand our psychological make-up can help us be less vulnerable to constant pro-consumption messaging.