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Evidence from 33 countries challenges the assumption of unlimited wants

Abstract

Humans have unlimited wants. This foundational economic principle and widely accepted assumption about human nature poses considerable challenges to addressing sustainability because pursuing wealth and economic growth to meet unlimited wants increases resource use and pollution. Here we show evidence that this principle is not universal, and actually applies only to a minority of people. Across 42 community samples (N = 7,860) from 33 countries spanning 6 continents, we examined how much money people wanted in their absolutely ideal life. In 86% of countries the majority of people thought they would achieve their absolutely ideal lives with US$10 million or less, and in some countries as little as US$1 million or less. However, a substantial minority (8–39% across countries) wanted as much money as they could obtain, indicating unlimited wants. Limited and unlimited wealth ideals were not related to country differences in economic development, but those with unlimited wants tended to be younger, city-dwelling people who valued power, success and independence, and lived in countries with a greater collective focus and acceptance of power differences. The results suggest that transformative approaches relying on limiting wealth and growth to achieve sustainability may be more consistent with human ideals and aspirations than commonly believed.

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Data availability

The data and materials for the studies used in this paper are publicly available in Open Science Framework repositories at https://osf.io/25398/ (Study 1) and https://osf.io/k3wdp/ (Study 2).

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part by a grant from the Australian Research Council (DP180100294, P.G.B.). We thank E. Bushina, C. Calligaro, C. Demarque, Y. Guan, L.-O. Johannson, T. Milfont and J. Park for translations. C. Crimston, M. Hornsey, T. Milfont and C. Chapman contributed to survey administration. We thank M. Fonseca and K. Papps for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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P.G.B. and R.B. were responsible for the conceptualization, methodology and formal analysis of this work. Writing of the original draft was done by P.G.B., with the reviewing and editing carried out by R.B. The funding acquisition was performed by P.G.B.

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Correspondence to Paul G. Bain or Renata Bongiorno.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Travis Carter, Therese Lindahl and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Sections 1–6 and Tables 1–13.

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Bain, P.G., Bongiorno, R. Evidence from 33 countries challenges the assumption of unlimited wants. Nat Sustain (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00902-y

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