Wants Versus Needs

Madeline Lovell, Seattle University

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


"Wants versus Needs" is a two-part assignment given to students to encourage reflection on the materialism/consumption inherent in today's American society. It could be used in any class considering environmental issues. Students track their own desires and purchases and then write a reflection paper exploring the pull that material goods exert in their own lives and what this demonstrates about the way that consumerism shapes one's sense of identity.

Learning Goals

This activity is designed to bring home to students the personal impact of materialism and advertising in America today. It is possible to read books such as Schor's Born to Buy without owning the impact these pressures have on oneself. To more fully understand the depth to which material goods shape the construction of self-identity in modern Western society, students are encouraged through this assignment to closely examine their own lives. They must begin to wrestle with what they want versus what they need - how they make these decisions and what referents they draw on.

Context for Use

This assignment is anchored in a section of the class examining materialism in American society and specifically its impact on children. This is the second of four topics covered in the course - challenges to young adults in getting ahead today, materialism and identity, environmental sustainability, and community in the 21st century. Each section is approximately two weeks in length delivered over a quarter.

It is a part of a course in social problems but could potentially be appropriate for courses such as Introduction to Sociology, American Society and Culture, or Social Psychology.


The assignment is given in the first of four class sessions devoted to this topic. The assignment is due one week later. At that point an in-class debriefing is conducted lasting up to one hour. However, the assignment could be placed at any point in a course dealing with these issues.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment Students keep a written record of their "wants" over a three-day period, also noting any events that trigger the "want" and whether or not they act on it. They then write a one-page reflection paper that invites them to connect commercialism with self-identity in order to hopefully develop a greater ability to critique American society and to instill a consciousness of the separation of wants and needs in their everyday lives.

The Learning Activities

Preliminary Activities
This assignment is anchored in a section of the class examining materialism in American society and specifically its impact on children. This is the second of four topics covered in the course - challenges to young adults in getting ahead today, materialism and identity, environmental sustainability, and community in the 21st century. Each section is approximately two weeks in length delivered over a quarter.

The assignment is given in the first class of the two-week period. It is due one week later. In the week while students are carrying out the assignment several preliminary and concurrent activities are conducted.

Preliminary Reading and Lecture (on the first day)
Students read chapter one of Juliet Schor's Born to Buy, which introduces the concept of the commercialization of childhood.

Concurrent DVD/Discussion
Students watch and discuss Juliet Schor's DVD, "The Overspent American" - particularly the section on needs versus wants.

Main Learning Activities

An Experiment in Monitoring Desires
Students are directed to prepare 3X5 cards with two columns. One column is entitled "Want", the other "Trigger". They are to carry the cards with them at all times for a three-day period. Each time they become aware that they thinking about a material want, they are to note it on the card. Each thought is a separate notation, even if the desire is for the same item. If they are aware of a specific trigger for the want (such as seeing a great pair of shoes on another student, seeing an advertisement, et cetera), they are to note it in the second column. However, they are instructed that the trigger is not always obvious and the most import thing to do is to be conscious of their desires. They are also asked to note with an asterisk any items they actually acquired.

To try to avoid a social desirability bias in record keeping, students are assured that having wants and desires is perfectly normal and that everyone has them. In our culture it is also perfectly normal to want material items. They are also assured that analyzing these desires will help us uncover the messages our society and culture is sending us about what it means to be a person in our society.

Reflection Paper
Following the data collection phase, students are then asked to write a one page single-spaced reflection paper on what this experience has shown them. In the paper they should address the following questions:

What desires stand out to you as the most important to you - the ones you wanted the most?
  • Did you actually acquire the item(s) (by purchasing, trading, borrowing, et cetera)?
  • What did it feel like to acquire or not acquire the item(s)?
  • What would other people think about you if you had this/these?
  • What would you think about yourself?
Class Debriefing
The purpose of the class debriefing is to help students relate the data they have collected and reflected upon in order to understand what is meant by the social construction of identity - to unpack the linkage between consumption and self-identity. The debriefing is done in two stages. First, students share their own personal experiences with the exercise in a smaller, more intimate group setting. Second, the class re-gathers as a large group to unpack how
consumption shapes self-identity in America today.

Small Groups
Students are directed to choose a group of no more than three students. One member should take on the role of recorder to be prepared to bring back highlights of their conversation to the larger group. In the small group students are instructed to share their findings from this experiment noting similarities and differences.

Large Group:
Sample questions to shape the class discussion:
  • Were there any common themes in the groups? (Groups report back.)
  • What socio-cultural factors might influence what we want?
  • What does this tell us about how we form a sense of what is valued in a person in our society?
  • How do we internalize these messages?
  • Schor's comments, "More children here than anywhere else believe that their clothes and brands describe who they are and define their social status." (Born to Buy, p. 13) Is this true only of children? Why or why not?

Teaching Notes and Tips

As noted above, it is important to frame the assignment in such a way that students are encouraged to think deeply and not simply say I am a good person, an environmentally aware person, so I don't have many wants. Students should be reassured that both can be true and that the capacity to be aware of conflicting pressures is a critical factor in making wise choices. If students assert that they have few wants, they should be encouraged to identify the referents on which they are drawing to construct their self-identity as someone with few wants in modern, western society.


Reflection papers are graded on three elements: completion of the full assignment, the depth of thought evidenced and the quality of the writing. All data collection cards must be turned in with the paper. The following rubric is used to grade the assignments. It is included with the assignment so that students have a clear idea of the expectations for their work.

Grading Rubric for Assignment

The Superior Paper (A/A-)
  • Excellent record keeping; detailed; has all required components
  • Excellent summary of the data - logical conclusions; Answers all questions.
  • Reflection demonstrates depth and personal insight regarding consumption/identity.
  • Ideas flow logically.
  • Excellent sentence structure, grammar, diction; correct use of punctuation; minimal to no spelling errors; absolutely no run-on sentences or comma splices.
The Good Paper (B+/B)
  • Good record keeping; lacking some detail; Answers all questions.
  • Summary of data promising but logical conclusions seem somewhat tenuous.
  • Reflection may lack depth of insight.
  • Sentence structure, grammar, and diction strong despite occasional. lapses; punctuation often used correctly. Some (minor) spelling errors; may have one run-on sentence or comma splice.
The Borderline Paper (B-/C+)
  • Record keeping is somewhat messy; unclear; Answers all questions.
  • Summary of data and conclusions are weak.
  • Reflection appears superficial.
  • Problems in sentence structure, grammar, and diction (usually not major). Some errors in punctuation, and spelling. May have some run-on sentences or comma splices.
The 'Needs Help' Paper (C/C-)
  • Record keeping is messy; Answers most questions but not all, causing summary and conclusions to be incomplete.
  • Reflection is superficial.
  • Big problems in sentence structure, grammar, and diction. Frequent major errors in punctuation, and spelling. May have many run-on sentences and comma splices.
The 'Really Needs Help Paper' (D+/D)
  • Like the above paper but the problems are even more serious
The Failing Paper
  • Shows obviously minimal lack of effort or comprehension of the assignment. Very difficult to understand owing to major problems in writing, structure, and analysis. Does not follow paper guidelines. Plagiarizes.
* Adapted from Grading Rubric Example: Penn State University
Source: http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/s/a/sam50/rubric.htm.

References and Resources

Additional/supplemental materials that can be used to support and/or extend this assignment include:

Audio-visual Materials
  • The Merchants of Cool
  • Century of the Self
  • Affluenza (Facts are dated at this point in time but selected segments can be useful.)
  • What is the Good Life? Yes! Magazine, Summer 2004 Issue.
  • Sustainable Happiness, Yes! Magazine, Winter 2009 Issue.