John Tierney visited Stanford so an MRI could watch his brain make decisions about buying stuff. The result is an exceptionally well written article about the neuroscience of irrational consumer behavior.
I will not try to justify my need for the mood clock, the “Dodgeball” DVD, the desk-clip lamp and the smoothie maker. I would rather pin these choices on two culprits.
The first was my nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain with dopamine receptors that are activated when you experience or anticipate something pleasant, like making money or drinking something tasty. In the experimental subjects at Stanford, this region was activated when they first saw pictures of things they wanted to buy. My nucleus accumbens just happened to respond more strongly than the typical subject’s, so what else could I do? If it feels good, buy it.
The other culprit — the main villain, really — was my insula. This region of the brain is activated when you smell something bad, see a disgusting picture or anticipate a painful shock. It was typically activated in the brains of the other shoppers when they saw a price that seemed too high. I’d like to think of my insula as particularly stoic, the strong, silent type, but he’s probably just an oblivious slob.
The lazy insula is a rarer affliction than you’d guess by looking at Americans’ indebtedness. Tightwads slightly outnumber spendthrifts, according to surveys by George Loewenstein and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, Scott Rick and Cynthia Cryder. These behavioral economists think tightwads aren’t any more rational than spendthrifts, because neither group is carefully weighing the long-term benefits of a Foreman grill versus college tuition. Dr. Loewenstein says the brain scans demonstrate that both kinds of shoppers are guided by instant emotions.
“We developed this propensity to experience direct pain when we spend money,” Dr. Loewenstein said. “This explains why tightwads won’t spend money even when they should. It also helps to explain why we overspend on credit cards, and why people prefer all-you-can-eat buffets instead of paying for each item they order. We like schemes that remove the immediate pain of paying.”