Tim Kasser, Steve Cohn, Allen Kanner, Richard Ryan

The Big Idea

It might seem from the title of this research discussion on American corporate capitalism that it might have little relevance for the interests of our loyal Player Development Project readers.  Well, if you give this summary a go you will likely change your mind.  If one thinks a bit about the values and goals of corporate capitalism, it is impossible to ignore what has mysteriously become something of “the elephant in the room” in the contemporary world of football.

For the sake of context and backstory for why this paper holds special relevance for our PDP readers, you might want to read through a couple of recent PDP blogs by James Vaughan, our PDP lead researcher.  The first discusses the FIFA saga and how the fallout is having a corrupting effect on our coaching.  The second discusses the destructive effects of corporate economic incentives on our beloved sport, with the inspiring story of Leicester City football as a possible catalyst for reform.

The FIFA Saga: Coaching Corrupted

Leicester City: Football Revolution?


  • American capitalism as an economic organising system was already alive and well underway by 1900.
  • Now in the early 21st Century this system is something of a paradox, beyond belief for both its wondrous successes and yet its mysterious failures.
  • Its wonders are legendary: technological innovations, higher standard of living for many, popular culture, improved health, industrial and military power, immigration, the middle class, and gigantic corporations.
  • Its mysteries are confounding: self-interest, exploitation, economic disparity, greed, corruption, diminished social mobility, materialism, careless environmental stewardship, and consumerism.
  • The discipline of psychology has largely ignored the impact of economics on human life.
  • These researchers argue that: 1) psychologists ought to pay more attention to economics, and 2) there are significant costs to the growth of American corporate capitalism.
  • These costs impact what it means to be human, especially compromising our psychological well-being, optimal performance, social cohesion, and ecological sustainability.

The Research

As modern economic systems go, capitalism is the most dominant way of organising economic life in Western Europe, America, and Australian nations; not to mention the turn toward capitalism in many of the so-called developing nations.  Capitalism is dominant largely because of the many technical wonders it has underwritten:  continuous inventions, improvements in communication, transportation, medicine, construction, health, education, and standard of living—less drudgery and menial labor and more comfort and convenience.

But, there is a but.  These research psychologists are focused on the potential impact of our remarkable economic productivity on our ability to be human.  They argue that American corporate capitalism (ACC) fosters certain contrary values: self-interest, desire for financial success, extraordinary levels of consumption, and competition as an interpersonal style.  Such preoccupations squeeze out other goals and values such as caring about the broader world, cultivating close interpersonal relationships—and especially for those in poverty, feeling worthy and autonomous.  Even though the discipline of psychology has largely ignored capitalistic economy as worthy of study, these psychologists believe such study is imperative if we are to understand and nurture psychological well-being, optimal performance, individual autonomy, social cohesion, and ecological sustainability.

What is American corporate capitalism?

There were three reasons these researchers chose to study American capitalism over other forms of capitalism around the globe.  First, it is the economic system under which the authors themselves live.  Second, it seemed to them that the American system has the largest worldwide influence.  Third, economic globalisation favours the ACC more than any other form of capitalism suggesting that it will continue to gain in popularity.

Let’s list the more primary characteristics of ACC: (Note: Given the length of this research paper, it is necessary to bullet list the primary descriptors of ACC)

  • Private ownership of property by individuals or corporations
  • Capital is also used to hire workers.
  • The product or service is produced is then sold in the marketplace where consumers use their own income to purchase what is needed or desired.
  • This economic system works best when capitalists, workers, and consumers pursue their own self-interest.
  • It is competition among and between these three marketplace players that keeps the economic system going by way of profits, wages, and highest quality goods and services at lowest possible price.
  • Given the pressures of sustaining this scaffolding, it falls to marketing to promote corporate products and services—whether by way of advertising or using interpersonal relationships for profit despite concerns for the potential harm such practices entail.

These researchers are especially concerned about the impact of the ACC to undermine self-direction and self-acceptance. 

  • Consumers are persuaded to endorse the responsibility to accumulate wealth.
  • People will work hard to earn money to spend on goods and services.
  • Spending creates profits for companies (or not, in the case of a failing company).
  • Value for corporations becomes quarterly earnings and the price of its stock. Value for a nation becomes the GNP per capita.
  • For-profit corporations are compelled to act in the interest of share-holders by increasing profits.
  • Media—typically owned by for-profit corporations—encourages the formula that wealth=success.
  • This formulaic business plan can create multi-national corporations with economic activity exceeding that of a fair number of nations.
  • Economic growth of these corporations is necessary to maintain what is considered normal daily life.
  • The consequence is the need for new markets, cheap resources, and low production costs.

What are the values and goals of ACC?

Once again, we must resort to a bullet list of the major value and goal distinctions of ACC:

  • ACC is a system of beliefs, social relationships, and institutions that impact human motivations and values.
  • As such, ACC fosters ideological values and institutional practices that leave little room for other alternative belief systems.
  • One concern is that in the absence of an alternative system of beliefs, pursuing wealth beyond the survival needs (“I am what I own”) does little to create the happiness associated with fulfilling human needs.
  • Another concern is this: That when a smooth functioning ACC becomes central to individuals and institutions, there is a predictable conflict with these three other aims: concern for the broader community; intimate personal relationships; and feeling worthy and autonomous.
  • Additionally, the results of previous empirical research using different methodologies, from different theories, and with thousands of individuals from dozens of nations consistently find this: That the values and goals of ACC’s ideology and institutions undermine people’s concern for: 1) promoting the welfare of others in the broader community; 2) developing a sense of connection and closeness to other humans; and 3) choosing paths in life that help them to feel they belong.
  • Becoming self-interested, for example, compromises community interest. When social capital erodes, consumers are no longer citizens.
  • A consequence is the frequently reported concern that the more materialistic people become the less concern they have for the size of the ecological footprints—taking more resources for one’s self and leaving less for other people, other species, and future generations.
  • So too are those with more materialistic values less empathetic, more Machiavellian, and less cooperative than those with intrinsically driven beliefs.
  • Even a person’s feeling of autonomy can suffer under exclusive ACC goals and values. Often financial success goals can create frustration with being trapped and a correlative loss of personal freedom.
  • As such, materialism, competition, and self-interest are unlikely to be experienced as freely chosen by most individuals. An element of coercion arises especially when the workplace life is considered—when doing one’s job is largely dictated by management or worse, by a machine.

Concluding summary

This lengthy, sustained and empirically based research discussion attempted to accomplish two goals. First, that ACC’s themselves are well worthy of increased attention by those researchers populating the field of psychology.  Second, that despite the remarkable accomplishments of the capitalistic system of organisation, these successes are not without significant costs.

One way to understand the costs is to is to study the values and goals of the institutions necessary to sustain the ACC (namely self-interest, financial success, and competition).  The extensive literature review suggested that these aims conflict with and compromise pursuits that psychologists have determined over the years to be essential to individual and collective well-being.  These markers of genuine culture-creating activities include: 1) doing one’s best to help the world be a better place; 2) to develop committed personal relationships with others; and 3) to feel worthy and autonomous.  Finally, the research cited also challenged the common assumptions about self-interest, competition, and the relationship between wealth and happiness.

We begin to realize that this skill in dominating matter and making it

 conform to our wishes, this enthusiasm for comfort is, if one makes

of it a principle, as open to argument as any other. Alerted by this suspicion,

we begin to see that comfort is merely a subjective predilection, or to put

it bluntly, a capricious desire which Western peoples have exercised for

two hundred years, but which does not in itself reveal any superiority

of character.

–Ortega y Gassett (1929)

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