Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The neurology of spending

Have you ever wondered why some people are addicted to shopping? Why sometimes it is so engrossing and overwhelmingly pleasurable to buy something new and then deeply regret it later? What causes that excitement and urge to spend?

Well, recent research out of Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon sheds some light on what's going on in your brain when you are faced with the decision to purchase. It is a fight between the pleasure of getting something new and the pain of spending money.

Basically, what happens in your brain goes a little something like this. According to Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide:

They discovered that when subjects were first exposed to the item, a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) was turned on. The NAcc is a crucial part of our dopamine reward pathway - it's typically associated with things like sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - and the intensity of its activation was a reflection of desire for the item. If the person already owned the complete Harry Potter collection, then the NAcc didn't get too excited about the prospect of buying another copy. However, if he'd been craving a George Foreman grill, then the NAcc flooded the brain with dopamine whenever that item appeared.

But then came the price tag. When the subjects were exposed to the cost of the product, the insula was activated. The insula is associated with aversive feelings, and is triggered by things like nicotine withdrawal and pictures of people in pain. In general, we try to avoid anything that makes our insula excited. Apparently, this includes spending money.

By measuring the relative amount of activity in each brain region, the scientists could accurately predict the subjects' shopping decisions. They knew which products people would buy before the people themselves did. If the insula's negativity exceeded the positive feelings generated by the NAcc, then the subject almost always chose not to buy the item. However, if the NAcc was more active than the insula, the object proved irresistible. The sting of giving up cash couldn't compete with the thrill of getting a George Foreman grill.

Apparently, stores know how to keep our NAcc fired up, yet keep the insula down. With the proposition of sales, deep discounts and the like keeping the insula in check, the NAcc can have a field day. It's like a pimp telling you his prostitutes are guaranteed to be disease free (or your money back!).

What's interesting is that, with the current state of the economy, people are not as subjective to these marketing tactics as they once were, mostly because that pesky insula is super sensitive these days. Questioning your purchases, your need for something new and the like was something we did seriously during the Buy Nothing Challenges last year. But, it's easy to slip off the buy-nothing wagon, simply because you are fighting against your own brain and a flood of dopamine.

Do you experience a "shopping high" when you buy something? Are your purchases ever tinged with buyer's remorse? Have you gotten better at questioning your decision to buy something before you purchase it or have your personal finances just made you more aware of what you are buying?

Additional reading: Shopping Centers in the Brain (from the journal, Neuron)


Anonymous said...

"Do you experience a "shopping high" when you buy something? Are your purchases ever tinged with buyer's remorse?"
that's the good thing about shopping for the kids. no remorse, because giving your children all you can is considered to be a positive thing. :))

BlondeOverBoard said...

it's crazy what you're brain can talk you into thinking you need just to get that dopamine bath.. i've made purchases during which i felt deliciously sublime only to get to the car, look at the bag and think "what the holy hell am i gonna do with that??" as a matter of fact, that's how i got my curtain tie backs...that 5 months later i still haven't hung. i've gotten better since i realized that no thing is ever going to make me feel the way i do when i've had a productive day. the feeling may not be as intense but it's certainly longer lasting without the big drop. the last thing i want these days is more roller coaster living.

Robj98168 said...

Being a recovering Drug/alcohol addict, I certainly understand the dopamine addiction- In my family we have folks addicted to gambling,food,shopping, booze, drugs, internet porn, and worse of all- Golf. You name it,we overdue it. I can see it in "healthy things" as well- sports, dieting, what have you. As far as myself- I don't get a high from buying things- even big ticket items give me buyers remorse.

knutty knitter said...

I think my buy mechanism must be out of order. That and we are flat broke most of the time. The main incentive is to make do round here. I simply couldn't buy new most of the time and get paranoid if I really do have to spend anything on myself. I am much happier spending necessary amounts on the family.

viv in nz

Anonymous said...

I am wondering whether 'frugality' involves suppressing the good brain chemicals or spurring on the bad ones.

I think it is the latter, because I do get a brief rush sometimes but my thought processes snuff it out before I even look at the price tag.

Anonymous said...

Well, my insula must be in rare form. When I'm faced with a potential purchase, my brain shuts it down tighter than the sphincter on a 2 year old in the midst of potty training. I grew up poor and it must have gathered its strength from that, ha. I almost never, ever, buy anything (other than necessities)the first time around. I go home, I think about it, I see if I really want it, is it the best deal (Thank you internet) and will it really get used. THEN I make the decision. Is this a far more thankless and less-dopamine inspiring process than just buying it? Why yes, sometimes it sucks to be a obsessively compulsive tightwad. On the other hand, we have no debt, other than a mortgage we are close to paying off after only 8 years, and our house is pretty uncluttered, even with 2 kids. It really does pay to listen to your insula, too bad it takes times like these to activate it.

Lisa Zahn said...

Back when I was very devout, but still a big shopper (well, "big" is relative, I've always been frugal too), I prayed to get a stomachache whenever I shouldn't buy something. That worked very well! I still get a stomachache, it's called "gut instinct" I guess, when I need to put the item down and move on. Or sometimes after I buy something, but mostly it does prevent me from shopping too much.

Still, this year I'm compacting, and when I was PMS-y last week, I did go to the thrift store and buy two used books for .69 each just for that little high of buying something. That's sick, isn't it?

Alison Kerr said...

It seems that the hardest things to resist are the things you've thought about beforehand. Say one day you were thinking that you could use some new bedsheets for some reason. Then you go to the store and see bedsheets reduced price. For me it's hard to resist in that situation, espcially if I have someone with me and I'm in a good mood. "Wow, I was just thinking that I needed bedsheets!", pops into my mind and before I know it they might land in my shopping cart.

Yes, I'm also more tempted to buy something for a family member than for myself. It all comes out the same budget though so I'm working on that.

My best strategies for resisting are:
1) don't leave the house
2) stick to my list
3) walk away and come back if I'm convinced I can't do without
4) treat myself with something very low value

Last week I found I was treating myself with a new type of dried beans at the store! It was hard to walk past all those colorfully packaged foods which I used to buy, but I restricted myself to feeling it was a treat to buy a different very basic food.

Having a per-item limit also helps me - no treats over $1, or something like that.

Anonymous said...

I do get all happy when I buy something I want. Rarely do I have buyer's regret... Ok... with the housing market tanking... I do regret buying my condo. I love my condo. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else but I am basically throwing my money down the toilet.

But I think the reason why I don't have buyer's regret is that I do research what I am buying and make absolutely sure it is what I need/want before I get it. I do a lot of thinking before I buy a big ticket item.

I also don't do a lot of buying so maybe that is why I get such a high? I am not much into shopping and don't window shop. It just makes me want to buy things I really don't need.

I am continually puzzled by my husband who buys things then never uses them although he specifically bought them to fulfill some need. Why? He says he has problems wearing things that look new. Weird... and wasteful in my mind.

Adrienne said...

I can easily talk myself out of buying something that isn't useful, which saves me from a lot of buyer's remorse. But there are lots of useful things I can talk myself into. On the other hand I have a problem talking myself *into* big ticket items- I desperately need, really need a new sofa (or at least newer, used would be okay if I could find a decent one) but I can't bring myself to spend on it.

Unknown said...

I have found it very helpful not to have tv, not to go to stores. Of course that leaves the ever-present internets.

For my non-food purchases I have a list. It takes a lot for me to buy something not on the list.
Sometimes I see how long I can keep things on the list - things drop off without buying and I don't miss them sometimes.

Anonymous said...

That is fascinating. Perhaps some people have the stronger NAcc and some have the stronger insula. I love to shop, but my insula usually wins, so that it's extremely difficult for me to buy something that isn't the best deal -- almost impossible, in fact -- and if it wasn't a good deal I get serious buyer's remorse and supercritical of myself. I try to keep it in check and be nice to myself by sometimes buying exorbitant things I don't need at all. JUST KIDDING! For instance, even though I would love a luxury car that seats 7, I still have twinges of buyer's remorse 5 years after buying my Subaru ... even though we researched the heck out of the purchase and I was (and am) convinced that this car definitely meets our needs better than any other AND was a good value.

I wonder if it's hereditary. You know how some families are just cheap, and others are wild spendthrifts ... nature or nurture?

May said...

Well, that explains a lot. I'm often excited by items I think I want to purchase, but after a few minutes I guess my insula really starts getting worked up because I have to be really pleased with something before I'll buy it. But maybe that's because I'm super cheap.

Anonymous said...

As the child of 2 Depression Babies, I've often wondered how the desire to buy/not buy gets filtered in our brains. My father loves to spend; my mother was very frugal. Both experienced the difficulties of the Depression though neither family suffered real deprivation. I am more my mother, very frugal. I don't enjoy shopping and don't experience the rush my shopaholic friends do.

Anonymous said...

I have experienced a "shopping high", but not often. Mostly, I find shopping to be an unpleasant chore, particularly when I have two small children in tow. These days if I'm likely to overspend it's online.

I've recently started budgeting and tracking spending more carefully, because I know I can spend less and still live a very comfortable life. I also know that by reducing the 'stuff' I buy I'm helping out the planet. At the moment seeing how much less I spent in a month, or seeing my flush bank account, is giving me a "saving high."

Anonymous said...

I was raised to get pleasure from savings - not from the act, but from the number going up. I was raised to think of cash in the bank as stability and safety. And it's served me well, saving me from sudden homelessness when I lost a live-in nanny job and later giving me the freedom (like this week!) to choose to work part time. So that's good reinforcement.

The pleasure of saving balances out a lot of the shopping high - it's not good feelings vs. bad feelings but two different kinds of pleasure weighed against each other.

My partner's even worse - it freaks him out to have the number in his savings account go down, even if we just rerouted it into a different account.

Anonymous said...

sorry about the double post, but I was going to say - I think a lot of people get pleasure from "saving" compared to some imaginary "usual price", that's why sales work so well, but not many of us actually get real pleasure from the nest egg growing.

Anonymous said...

I've never had any interest -- or joy -- in shopping. And now I know why -- it's brain chemistry.


GreenieJoy said...

lol thats an interesting article! Ever since I had money to spend I've had really bad problems with shopping. I'd go into a mall to get one thing and walk out of it with $300 worth of stuff I didn't need and didn't have the money to pay it with (I am not suffering from HUGE debt :/) Even when I was already in great debt I still couldn't stop my self from buying things I didn't need because totally my NAcc was way in charge and I'd always get so excited about buying new things and brining those new things home.

But now that I've started educating myself about the environment and the effect that buying stuff and consuming stuff has on the environment its much easier to resist the temptation! (now I just fall pray to temptation of buying plants, worms and other things that help me live greener that I can't technically afford) but luckily I keep those down to a minimum.

I always thought maybe I had no self control but now I can tell myself I just had a chemical imbalance :P j/k

Anonymous said...

I really am not a big spender, I find a lot of satisfaction in seeing how little I can spend at the grocery store, or repurposing something I already have into something new that I needed. But I AM kind of an emotional spender.
Last week, for example, my hubby and I got into an arguement. It was about nothing really, but my pesky pregnancy hormones kind of blew it out of porportion for me. I left the house, practically in tears, determined to see if I could get into the salon to get my hair done... a $60 + expense that I haven't taken care of since October because we just didn't have the cash. Fortunately for me, and the household budget, I couldn't get in.
Usually my insula kicks in anyway, and I go for the emotional high of a $4 coffee or something more reasonable instead. It's still a treat that offers the high in the emotional crisis, but it doesn't break the budget.

Anonymous said...

I have been battling depression for years and before I identified the issue and began medication, I had a severe shopping problem. I shopped, spent and traveled for the high, racking up $24,000 in credit card debt. It took a while to pay it off, but thank goodness I did...and cut up my credit cards. I still get that twinge of a rush when I buy something, though.