Affective and symbolic aspects of travel: The car as a material possession; exploring the link between materialism and car use

Panel: Panel 5 Transport

Birgitta Gatersleben, University of Surrey, Department of Psychology, Guildford, UK


A significant proportion of household energy requirements is for transport. For this and other reasons social scientist are increasingly interested in understanding why people use cars and how they can be persuaded to use more sustainable forms of transport. This research tends to focus on the instrumental costs and benefits of car ownership and use. The role of social-symbolic aspects has received relatively little attention. However, the car is often recognised an important symbol of success and this may form an important barrier for change. This paper, examines the relationship between materialistic values and perceptions, attitudes and behaviours in relation to the car. People who hold stronger materialistic values tend to place more importance on material possessions as symbols of success and wellbeing. This paper presents data from several qualitative studies. The data show that, in line with existing research on materialism, people who express stronger materialistic values are more motivated to own and use a car, particularly an expensive car, they attached more value to cars and they are less likely to want to reduce their car use. These findings support the idea that the social-symbolic value of cars may constitute a barrier for change and this therefore needs to be addressed in interventions which aim to address car possession and use.


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