Psycho-pathologies of Market Societies

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD

Department of Economics, SRCC

In their classic economic history book, which should be a compulsory reading for college students, Heilbroner and Milberg address themselves to the interesting question as to how  three societies that superseded each other, viz. tradition-run societies, command societies and market societies or a spectrum of capitalisms, perceive the future. 

In doing so, they have not examined the implications of these societies for emotional wellbeing of the people.  However, the contributions of the German social psychologist Erich Fromm and the British psychologist Oliver James are very useful in making a study of how the operation of the market societies or a variety of capitalisms creates psychological pathologies which then enter into the way that those market societies work.

Oliver James has written about the problem of “Affluenza” as a kind of psychological virus that has done a lot of damage to emotional wellbeing in market societies through the promotion of extrinsic values. Similarly, Erich Fromm had written about the people who live to “have” under capitalism in contrast to people who live to “be”. He called these people as “marketing personalities”. Oliver James called them the marketing characters.

People with extrinsic motivations are all the time trying to be “somebodies”. By contrast people with intrinsic motivations are “nobodies” as they are not trying to climb into the public gaze in order to pursue their interests and have no particular concern for status display and celebrity status or wealth because that is not what drives them. 

As Brian Davey underlines, empirical research suggests that people with intrinsic values (e.g. spiritual, community and environmental goals) tend to lead more satisfying lives (in the sense of authentic feelings); and that people pursuing extrinsic values such as wealth, or preservation of public image tend to find that they are never satisfied and their wellbeing is very fragile. Extrinsic motivations do not encourage “flourishing”. To put it differently, if we pursue the banal approach of mainstream economists to understand human psychology and behavior which they suppose to be driven by calculations of individual utility, then we cannot make sense of why the market economy not only fails as a producer of goods and services but also why it is a source of misery and mental health problems including for those who are “successful” in material terms. We cannot understand the interrelationship between economic activity and mental health.

It is crystal clear now that the market economy undermines psychological wellbeing. For example, there is Australian research which shows that if you take a group of students, the business students are far more likely than the arts students to be marketing personalities or characters. These characters  have the following traits: “eager to consume; wasteful of goods, disposing and replacing them frequently having conventional tastes and views; uncritical of themselves or society; un-insightful; agreeing with the statement ‘having makes me more’; a tendency to publicise and promote themselves; experiencing themselves as a commodity whos value is determined by possessions and the opinions of others; and with values portrayed in television advertisements.” They are more likely to be “materialistic, conformist, unconcerned about ecology, expressive of anger, anxious and depressive”. They “place little value on beauty, freedoms or inner harmony. Their main pursuits are social recognition, comfort, and having an exciting life. They are extremely individualistic in their social values and do not regard social equality as desirable. They compare themselves obsessively and enviously with others, always having to have more and better things than others, believing inequality to be man’s natural state.” Such people including the Saudi Prince Alwaleed are never contented even when they have lots of money. 

The losers in the market society are the people who suffer and are driven to the edges and they literally become material “nobodies”. They are noticed only when they become a problem, getting in the way of the elite agendas and actions.

Whatever you are in market societies, your attention seeking is characterized as a bipolar mental health issue. One the one hand there is depression as emotional reaction when one experiences as a nobody. On the other, there is mania or excitement at the idea that one is about to become a star as a result of one’s brilliant work. This is not all. Mania oscillates with depression.

The craziness of successful marketing personalities by way of mania can have devastating social effects. This is very much evident in the financial world. In a leveraged boom (bubble), it is not only asset values that get pumped up but egos. Ordinary mortals suddenly become very rich and acquire the symbols of social success…Often enough, in these circumstances more and more commitments are taken on…If one does too much one doesn’t have time to wash one’s clothes and do the washing up. Life, practicalities, projects and relationships fall apart as one goes past one’s limits. A rich person may not have some of the complications of ordinary life which would floor a manic person. Their money can buy servants and, with enough wealth, sex (though not love) is no problem either. Many of the practical problems in life can be solved with money or a credit card—until the crash.  The whole history of the market economy tells us that a crash comes eventually. Euphoria impairs judgement. The overconfidence of the rich and powerful people, because it cannot be held in check by the countervailing power of those who are not as strong economically or politically, nevertheless, reaches a point beyond which it cannot go further.” When the bubble bursts, reputational collapse occurs with corresponding psychological costs.

There is striking correlation between mental illhealth and debt. Both borrowers and lenders are affected. 

Consider the borrowers. Self-reported anxiety increases with the ratio of credit card debt to personal income. The onset of mortgage debt has a negative impact on mental health of males. A high proportion of people receiving debt advice have reported that their debt led to stress, anxiety and depression which they are likely to consult their doctor about. Debt and post natal depression are related. Debt is the strongest predictor of depression. Difficulties in repaying debts are strongly connected with suicidal ideation and self-harm. Debt is associated with feelings of shame, social embarrassment, a sense of personal failure, negative self-identities and is implicated in isolation, social exclusion and strained relationships.

Consider the lenders of money or at least those who manage and direct the credit markets.  Mental health problems are severe in the heat of financial competition. Drugs and alcohol are commonplace on Wall Street. During the financial crisis of 2007-2008, stressed-out traders reached breaking point and exhibited hysterical and assaulting behavior. Drugs reinforced traders’ inability to spot a looming downturn. During the panic, there was an epidemic of psychological illnesses in the finance sector, while some of the managers used some of the oldest of psychological strategies for coping—avoidance, denial, switching off mentally in the heat of the crisis. Therefore, from the viewpoint of community mental health, the credit system is highly dysfunctional even as group psycho-dynamics governs the way the financial markets evolve.

To conclude, we do not find optimal equilibrium states and rational people adapting to them in the financial world. Instead, we come across a large number of unhappy, dysfunctional and disoriented people. We may generalize that it is impossible to live, under capitalism, our lives by going as far as we can, without overloading ourselves emotionally, trying to engage with the f..king problems that we see all around us.


Brian Davey. 2015.

Robert Heilbroner and William Milberg. 2012. The Making of Economic Society. 13th edition. Pearson.

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