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Expensive therapy

March 25th, 2004 · No Comments

Via Tyler Cowen’s post in Marginal Revolution I read this article by Sharon Begley from the Wall Street Journal Behavioral economists study spending habits

In a provocative result from the new discipline of behavioral economics, scientists find that emotions that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand can influence what price people are willing to pay for something and what price they are willing to accept.

Economists tend to think consumers open their wallets despite downbeat news. Instead, tragic headlines might prompt spending.

Tyler Cowen quotes in his post: “Avoid shopping or selling things when you are sad.”

I’ve felt this emotional transaction. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it, saying I am too rational to feel happy after buying something. Or to want to shop when I am sad. I’m no dummy. I’m smarter than that, right? I don’t believe commercials. I know where that road leads: to bankruptcy.

But I’ve noticed the effect shopping can have on me. Coming home with a shiny new trinket can take my emotions on a trip, and my mind on a mini-vacation (nevermind the wallop to my wallet). I get distracted finding something fun for a focus, whether its searching for a soap dish or a skirt. (I’m not sure that buying something is necessary: a gift/garage sale find might have the same effect, or even digging out something old and making it “new”.)

Of course the effect only lasts a little while, sometimes not even in proportion to the price.

The other day I took the girls and went to the other side of the Sound. So determined was I to find what I wanted that we got on the ferry boat and drove to the Seattle suburbs, where stores are abundant, thick as a forest of strip-mall shopping. Indeed, I came home with a bag full of purchases and I was happy. Pleased with myself. But I think that part of my delight came from the fact that I had searched ten stores, everything from fancy department store to tiny island boutique. (Oh, how can there be so many clothes in the world, and yet none of them are what I want?!) I had hunted high and low – in the price range – yet not seen anything I wanted to take home with me. Until I hit the last place. Then I hit the jackpot. So I came home happy: happy with what I had found, but also happy that my trip had been worthwhile and that I wouldn’t have to do any further strenuous cross-Sound adventures.

Although I don’t want to admit it, I will say that I am enjoying my new purchases, mixing them into my wardrobe, and that I find shopping fun once in a while. I don’t think happiness has a price tag. It’s not for sale at the mall. Yet there are purchases that have made my life easier, brought me beauty, or given me some fun.

If you can indeed buy happiness, in some sense, then I wonder how people with obsessive compulsive disorder feel, people who are compelled to shop and shop. The woman whose house was featured in Boing Boing last month has this disorder, I suspect.

A SomethingAwful user has posted dozens of photos of the house he shares with his mother, who has some compulsion to order tchotchkes from eBay well beyond her ability to display or use them, so that the house is full of hundreds of unopened boxes of glass paperweights and god-knows-what.

From an website on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) engage in compulsive activities to reduce anxiety and discomfort. However, people who cannot stop gambling, shopping or eating are driven by pleasure-seeking arousal and by gratification.


Compulsive buying is estimated to affect 2% to 3% of the population, primarily women.

I wonder whether those women and men who are affected by compulsive buying have an extreme version, a broken version, of this happiness receipt.

A BBC article describes this oniomania:

What experts believe people are doing when they buy things in order to feel good is ‘self-medicating’ – taking an action which, like a medicine alters the body. ..In this case, it’s thought that something in the act of shopping releases a chemical in the brain known as serotonin, which is closely involved in the control of mood (low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and other mood problems).

On-line shopping has created constant opportunities for compulsion to find fulfillment, this serotonin sink.

Speaking of eBay, I wonder how this research could be used to affect shopping conditions on-line. Would tragic headlines placed near ads result in more business? Does eBay or Amazon notice differences in sales and prices based on news or television events?

What to do about oniomania:

Shopping isn’t the only thing to raise serotonin levels. Exercise can help, as can certain foods (including carbohydrates and chocolate, which explains why some people eat to feel better).

What we can do to help ourselves feel better. To raise those seratonin levels. Shop. Eat chocolate. Exercise. Jog. Blog. See sunshine. See a counselor. Fall in love All forms of therapy. And they each have a cost. It all depends what price you want to pay for happiness…and how long it will last…

Tags: health