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Holes in Pockets to Get Bigger

01/24/2011

Despite my haranguing about shopping, I do commiserate. It’s hard not to buy shit you don’t really need. Shucks, I confess that even I succumb to the siren wail of consumerism from time to time–that is, when the moon is full and Aquarius is in the third house.

Not only is shopping virtually unchallenged as a cultural institution, we’re also wired to do it, biologically. The story of our evolutionary success is largely due to our amazing ability to adapt. But the same quality that allows us to thrive in extreme climates and unforgiving environments has a negative effect on our ability to predict our emotions. We underestimate how good we are adapting.

I’m currently reading The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, and in it he discusses a study that examined the impact of life-changing events. Three groups of people were studied. The first was a control group, the second group were lottery winners, and the third were paraplegics. The latter two groups were interviewed a year after the day they won the lottery/lost the use of their legs. We imagine that winning the lottery would make us extremely contented in the long run, while becoming paralyzed from the waist down would be lastingly devastating. Amazingly, however, these groups did not differ dramatically in happiness from the control group. Though the lottery winners were slightly more satisfied with life and the paraplegics slightly less, the difference wasn’t that significant. They’d adapted almost completely to their new situations.

And that’s why we overestimate the long-term value of our purchases. We think a shiny new flat -screen TV will make us happy for a long time, when in reality the novelty wears off fairly quickly. We adapt to the idea of owning one in short order. Ariely calls this ‘hedonic adaptation’.

Resisting the impulse to shop promises only to get harder. Advertisers are becoming increasingly adept at marketing products to individuals rather than groups. Using information from sources such as browsing history (harvested using difficult-to-delete browser cookies), social networking sites (including what you say to friends), grocery store loyalty cards, automobile registration and criminal records, companies are now creating personalized ads. Consider the ads you see along the side of every Facebook page you visit.

With TV, radio and print, advertising used to be directed at the general populace, and generally easy to ignore. The Internet is changing things. We might soon find ourselves in a world where most ads are targeted at us personally–or at least, at the group of people that share our characteristics and interests.

Another somewhat unsettling development is the growing field of neuromarketing, which uses brain imaging technology to measure consumers’ reactions to ads. In doing so, companies are able to produce advertising that takes advantage of our brain chemistry.

Science fiction author/activist/blogger Cory Doctorow wrote a short story called “Ghosts in my Head”, which speculates about where this research might lead. It’s a brief and interesting read. And also scary as hell.

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