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Conspicuous consumption

Conspicuous consumption or pathological purchasing 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 nervous eating[?], but is generally reserved for those forms of consumption that seem to be fully motivated by social factors.

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 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.

More scientifically, those who use this term often believe that consumer behavior can be analyzed using advanced models developed in clinics funded to treat other substance dependencies. Best practices[?] used in public or even in private behavioral modification clinics, in this view, can yield new approaches for treating such pathological consumer behavior.

Pathological consumption is widely acknowledged to reach extreme proportions in capitalist societies in late December. Some argue that this is a festival of drunkenness and overt hedonism intended to set the tone of a new Roman calendar year, the Saturnalia once celebrated at the winter solstice, and having little or nothing to do with the Christian religion. Governments, quasi-public institutions, businesses and large groups of "consumers" co-operate in efforts to perpetuate the season of iconic consumption. They comment on the loss of the "spirit of Christmas" often, but in general, do not curb consumption in favor of charitable giving or any other demonstration of ability to resist.

One biological explanation is that the season of consumption derives momentum from a biologically based morbidity spread among large groups. In this theory, dopaminergic receptor sites[?] in the septal area of the limbic forebrain[?] upregulate, increasing in density in response to rewarding behaviors. Group behaviors subvert reward relationships developed over longer terms through a process of meme-contagion[?], whereby excitement passes among individuals by the exchange of artifacts, symbols and language related to loosely directed, often purposeless hedonic excitement - a "frenzy" as observed in many animal species.

Pathological abuse and dependence on materials begins when upregulated hedonic needs override sustainable behaviors in relation to an environment. Rats, for instance, are known to be willing to press levers to give themselves orgasms over and over again even if it means depriving themselves of food - and life.

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 proportion. 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, sugar, and that it is encounters with strange poorly-socialized drugs that lead in general to these unpredictable behaviors, not the consumption urge as such.

More controversially, such a society is sometimes claimed to develop a large-group mentality in which cognitive dissonance emerges between the harm caused by constant feeding of hedonic demands, and the need to continue feeding the hedonic demands. The group calms the dissonance by projecting on a sub-set of the group its worst traits, that being the trait of a person whose hedonic expectations are so elevated, that their primary focus is to feed the hedonic need - thus we project this identity on users of substances we have outlawed, denying their similarity to ourselves. The war on drugs in such a view becomes a simple war on the self-image, a social equivalent of bulimia, a gorge-and-purge exercise on a mass scale. Some argue also that over-sexed cultures take out similar hostilities on sexual deviants, especially on paedophiles[?], despite the fact that most child molesters[?] are relatives and thus socially indistinguishable from the protectors of molested children.

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.

Some believe that similar behavioral modification approaches to those used clinically to treat psychoactive substance abuse might yield promising approaches to chronic consumers. Behavioral health professionals might be recruited to offer effective treatment, and to train community members in skills for calming addictive behaviors. Western behavioral health practices, however, are plagued with pathological behaviors of their own, ineffectual but popular approaches and behavioral modification techniques that at times violate human rights to spiritual and cultural self-determination. It may be impossible for one group in a consumer society to effectively help "cure" any other one. Some advocates of eco-anarchism and eco-village lifestyles are pessimistic - only a return to a very simple life, they believe, offers any hope of a 'cure'.

Critics of capitalism sometimes claim that administratively, many behavioral health clinics have become tools of a court system charged with protecting a large group's addictive consumption. Thus they too tend to be pessimistic.

Some propose that enlistment of worldwide health professionals, similar to the approach taken for over-population[?] and the AIDS pandemic, requires development of a disease analysis on which interested caregivers may develop best practices for treatment. A recognition and demonstration of the correlation between recognized hedonic inflammations, i.e. alcoholism and abuse of licensed or unlicensed psychoactive substances, and the underlying inflammation that presents as social and environmental consumptive behavior can allow behavioral health professionals to apply their understanding of addictive behaviors in treating the more widespread epidemic of pathological consumption.

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[?].

Thorstein Veblen, the American economist, introduced the term "conspicuous consumption".

See also: pathological eating[?]; and compare the conspicuous consuming in potlatches.

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