There is no shortage of analysis and critique of consumerism, from Karl Marx on “commodity fetishism” and Thorstein Veblen on “conspicuous consumption” to James Walton’s Stuffocation (2015) and Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things (2016). The developmental psychologist Bruce Hood, however, promises that Possessed “is the first book to explore how the psychology of ownership has shaped our species and continues to control us today”. This is a venial sin of advertising, but then the consumer book trade is competitive.

Hood’s story is a colourful and interesting journey nonetheless. Animals can recognise possession of food or territory, he points out, and bats and monkeys keep track of fairness – but only humans own things. The book proceeds through layers of cultural history, political analysis (Hood attempts suggestively to relate Trump and Brexit to issues of ownership), and regrettably simplistic evolutionary psychology; its scientific core is the experiments Hood has performed on children. Like John Locke, it transpires, toddlers assume that someone owns something if they have made it themselves from the raw materials. And Hood cleverly elicited an “endowment effect” from pre-schoolers, showing that they, like adults, value something more than an identical alternative just because it belongs to them.

Possessed’s political argument is the familiar one that, in an age of global heating, we need to get off the hedonic treadmill of shopping-led overproduction. Unhelpfully, though, it conflates the acquisition of objects with wealth (not every comfortably-off person is a hoarder), and fails to distinguish between classes of object that it might be more or less admirable to purchase. To buy another guitar or dictionary you don’t need does not have the same kind of social and climatic externalities as buying another car you don’t need. The author endorses throughout the old saw that “money can’t buy happiness”, though curiously the people who insist on this always have enough money, so it can sound like a slogan to trample the aspirations of the needy. One thing money assuredly can buy is relief from the unhappiness of not having enough of it.

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Laudably, Hood does cite evidence even where it undermines his general argument. The lately fashionable theory that buying experiences, such as holidays or restaurant meals, makes people happier than buying things is, he shows, true only for the relatively rich: poor people are happier with more stuff. Other evidence suggests that “owning luxury goods produces a sense of well-being”, and general “life satisfaction” does reliably increase with wealth. Hood takes pains to distinguish such satisfaction from happiness, which is a term he uses uncritically until the very end of the book, when he suddenly (and rightly) declares that modern society’s focus on happiness – a fleeting and contingent emotion – is misplaced anyway. Given this, most people would happily take the increased life satisfaction money can provide. As David Lee Roth of Van Halen has sung: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor / Rich was better, totally better.”

Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need by Bruce Hood is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.



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