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Irrationality and shopping "addiction"

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Friday, Dec 19, 2008

As the scare quotes in the title of the post indicates, I’m skeptical of the notion and prevalence of “compulsive shopping,” an affliction detailed in this WSJ story in light of such sufferers’ unusual vulnerability within our current economic climate. The notion of a shopping addiction seems another manifestation of how we tend to pathologize and medicalize phenomena that may have a cultural explanation—that way we make these conditions seem natural if unfortunate rather than products of a culture we can and should change. But I guess that makes me a heartless scourage to the 8.9 percent of Americans who are allegedly afflicted. The WSJ article is full of poignant (if not risible) anecdotes about compulsive shoppers who feel compelled to collect shoes amd can’t resist the promise of a sale:


Saks Fifth Avenue this season offered 12 months of no interest and no payments for people who spend $2,000 or more in a single day, a deal that Mr. Shulman says is like a “crack dealer saying, ‘Come here, try a sample.’ “


Such stories are good for rationalizing our own compulsive shopping behavior—whatever foolish and unnecessary purchases I’ve made lately pale in comparison to these, and as pleasant as it can be to score a bargain, I don’t find myself jonesing for that pleasure. So I have nothing to worry about! And at the same time we experience the vicarious thrill of letting no obstacle stand in our way of our getting whatever stuff we want.


Anyway, this interview with psychologist Peter Ubel from Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog offer a more sober and less sensationalistic look at the relationship between mind and retail, tracing the various ways the classical economists’ presumption of rationality fails to reflect the ways people actually behave. Rather than pathologize shopping addiction, Ubel frames compulsion in terms of precommitment—deciding a measur eof resistance in advance and adhering to it, à la Ulysses vis-à-vis the sirens:


One reason we humans don’t always behave rationally is because we have limited will power. We know that exercise is good for us. We understand that junk food is bad. But we cannot follow through on our rational desires. We plan to run for 30 minutes, but after 10 we get off the treadmill, and convince ourselves we are a bit stiff today. We try to cut down on empty calories, and then grab a handful of M & M’s from a candy bowl, almost unaware of our action. No single M & M caused anyone to have diabetes. No one experienced a heart attack because they were 20 minutes short of their exercise goal. And yet our lives, our waistlines even, are the result of thousands of such decisions and behaviors.
To improve ourselves, we have to act like each M & M matters. Like each decision has important consequences. To do this, it helps to make rules and follow them. Commit yourselves to no candy, no desserts, and you’ll become more mindful of M & M bowls. Run outside, rather than inside on a treadmill, and you’ll be forced to finish your running loop. Tell a friend you’ll walk with them for 30 minutes this afternoon, and you’ll be forced to show up.
Want to save more money? Have some money automatically deposited into a savings account that you cannot access easily through ATMs, debit cards or checkbooks.  Sometimes the best way to behave better when you are weak is to impose martial law upon yourself when you feel strong.


This passage gets at an irony, a contradiction, in consumerism. Consumerism proliferates on the basis of the ideology of choice; we believe that thanks to consumerism, we get to make meaningful choices in the marketplace all the time and these extend and enrich our identity. But in fact, these choices tend to become reflexive, unconsidered—we fail to recognize their important consequences, or at least misconstrue them. The more retail decisions we make, the less important any one of them seems to our lives generally. We feel the meaning slipping away from us, our identities diminishing. One response is to force ourselves to make more choices in search of that diminishing meaning at the very moment we need to be taking decisions out of our own hands, or better, locating meaning in some other aspect of our lives. So consumerism basically prompts us to value choice more while making our choices in practice less meaningful and significant. So suddenly we are left wondering why our choice of blueberry over boysenberry jam hasn’t had a lasting impact on our existential weltanschauung.

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