Is my brain making me buy things I don't need?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from Cristen: Hey there, and welcome to the podcast. This is Cristen.

Molly: This is Molly.

Cristen: Molly, as promised, in honor of this podcast, I am going to tell you a nickname of mine given to me by a boyfriend that you probably have never heard.

Molly: I've been promised this anecdote for today.

Cristen: It's not too revolutionary, but Molly, I am, in some circles known as the thrifty nickel.

Molly: Oh, that's so adorable.

Cristen: Yeah, it's kind of adorable, but also sort of an insult because I really don't like spending money. You can say I'm a little bit of a tight wad sometimes.

Molly: Really?

Cristen: Yeah, I like to shop, but I shop alone, I go over things. I'm kind of like a hunter, I can see it, get it, leave, I'm not a person to go try on 50 dresses, and see which one I like. If I don't like it on the rack, I'm leaving, and you better be coming with me.

Molly: Do you have guilt when you shop, is that what kind of makes you a thrifty nickel?

Cristen: Buyer's remorse, yes, it's a big problem. If I don't feel like I'm getting a good bargain on something, I will probably be back in that store returning the item in the following week.

Molly: So you do buy the item.

Cristen: Sometimes, it depends. It more depends on my mood, but a lot of times, I'll just avoid shopping all together, unless I know that there's some kind of big sale going on.

Molly: Well, this all leads us into the idea of - I'm sure Cristen is not the only thrifty nickel listening today. On the other hand, we talk about female issues on these podcasts, and one of the big female stereotypes is that girls love to shop, and maybe you actually really do love to shop, and you like the reward of getting a good deal.Cristen: Oh, absolutely. There's nothing like finding a pair of boots that are 50 percent off. I love it. I feel like I won a marathon or something.Molly: Right, and so you know, we are just bombarded with these images in movies and TV like with the girls loaded down with bags, and what's kind of interesting is that - the reason I was asking Cristen about guilt, is that scientists have hooked our brains up to machines, and try to figure out why we buy what we buy, and how that makes us feel. What we will get into later is that this totally affects the way that people market goods and services to women.Cristen: Yeah, and Molly, talking about that stereotype about women shopping, I think that women and men certainly shop in a different way, and we shop for different things. I think I saw in The Wall Street Journal yesterday that in terms of retail items, women shop on a one to three year cycle, whereas men will shop on a ten-year cycle. We buy clothes for a season, and men buy clothes for years to come, but as a matter of fact, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, men are just as likely to shop compulsively as we are, they just might be more reluctant to let anyone know about that.Molly: Oh, their secret shame. Cristen: Yeah, so I think that we should talk about a brain, male, female, whatever, how our brain processes shopping.Molly: Right because if you learn from this podcast that you can blame all of your shopaholic nature, or your thrifty nickel nature on your brain, that might make it easier to stomach. Okay, so let's start off. We've got an article called Is My Brain Making Me Buy Things I Don't Need, and it revolves around the study researchers published in January 2007 in the Journal Neuron that shows that when we spend it's because things are going on in our brain that we have no control over whatsoever. Cristen: Right. There are all these cognitive functions that are going on, but there are also emotional issues attached to shopping and actually purchasing something, and when researchers hooked participants up to an FMRI machine, they found that an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens lights up when we see something that we like, and want to buy. Now this section near the middle of the brain is associated with our reward center, if we see something that we like, then we have it, we'll feel a sense of reward, like I do when I buy bargain sweaters or whatever it might be, and then once we see the price, an area of the brain called the mesial prefrontal cortex lights up, and this region of the brain is known for higher executive functions, and it seems like when this part of the brain lights up, we're trying to decide whether or not what we're looking at is worth the actual cost of it, and then the actual decision of whether or not we're going to purchase that handbag, or pair of boots, or whatever happens in the insula, and depending on whether or not we buy it, it will light up.Molly: Right, so how this all worked in practice is when the people went into the MRI machine, they were handed $40 in cash. They've got it in their hand, it's theirs to spend, and then they are shown images of these things, that you know, they can decide to buy or not. They can push a yes or no button, and say yeah, I want that. At the end of the experiment, the prices were subtracted from their $40, and the change was theirs. So before people even pushed the yes or no button, scientists could tell what they were going to pick based on whether that part that Cristen was talking about, the insula, lit up. The insula is just sort of your no button basically. If your insula lit up, then you decided not to buy the product because the ends didn't justify the means. If it didn't light up, then you were like buy, buy, buy. Cristen: Yeah, and it's interesting because the insula is sort of the opposite of the brain's pleasure center. It's more associated with pain and regret, so if the insula is lighting up, and you go ahead and buy it anyway, you might feel horribly guilty about it. Molly: But it's very unconscious. You definitely haven't felt the pain yet. You can just sort of - you know, part of your brain is anticipating that there will be pain.Cristen: Right because this is happening so fast. I mean, when they were flashing these images on the screen, and then the price, it was happening all within maybe ten seconds.Molly: Oh, I would bet less, but I mean, I have no time on the matter, but anyway it is happening very fast, which is why you don't want to be making quick, spur of the moment purchases. That's how you are - If you don't give your brain time to do all it's deliberating.Cristen: And this action that happens in the brain is something that behavioral economists call transaction utility. Molly: Oooh.Cristen: Yes, and that's the measure of whether or not what we are getting is going to be a good deal, and therefore pleasurable or if we're going to be spending more than we should, and we'll be experiencing pain from it. Molly: Now, the experiment we just described works for males or females. Everyone has this going on in their brain when they go shopping, but the reason it really relates to females in particular is that women buy more. You know, we are in charge of a lot more household purchases, we have the stereotype that we like to go buy clothes, and throw off an afternoon that way, so knowing this about everyone's brain, there is a field called neuroeconomics that goes even deeper into a female brain to say what else can we learn about a female's brain that will influence how she buys things.Cristen: Right, and there was an article in the New York Times, talking about how this neuroeconomics applied to a new advertising campaign by the Frito Lay Company. They know that women snack more often than men, but for some reason, women were not going for Lays products. They were eating other things, and they also knew, as we were talking before, women were experiencing all of this guilt associated with snacking, so they wanted to develop an ad campaign specifically targeting women to get them to acknowledge the guilt, but go ahead, and buy some Frito Lay products anyway.Molly: Right, they knew that based on MRI scans that women relied more on the emotional side of their brain when making choices, so they're like, okay, women have all this guilt when they eat snacks. They don't want to say just guilt-free because you know, that still implies that guilt could be had, but the new packaging talks about how it's just so good for you. Cristen: Yeah, and the commercials are very like, hey gals, we know what it's like, you're at the gym, and you're hungry, and you're all sweaty, why don't you just open up a bag obliquely-oriented fracture Sun Chips. Molly: Because you're acknowledging that you're doing something good for you, like you're gonna start seeing a lot of packaging that emphasizes the health ingredients, it puts that on the forefront, as opposed to zero calories, which reminds you about calories all together, they're gonna bypass that, and go straight to like, oh, don't you love all natural products?Cristen: Yeah, and these little animated female characters that they are using are meant to let you really commiserate with the women, the fake women, in the ads. Molly: You've got a pal.Cristen: I've been there, I've been there, I'm just hungry, I just want a snack.Molly: And don't they talk about - I didn't realize they had accents in the commercial Cristen, but don't they all -Cristen: They do in my mind.Molly: But don't they also talk about stuff like bras, and shopping, all these things that women supposedly love and want comradery with.Cristen: Yeah it's kind of Sex in the City on steroids in a horrible way.Molly: To make you buy potato chips.Cristen: Yeah.Molly: So that's just one very small example of how they're using your brain to get to you, but Cristen, I know you brought some information in about how they arrange grocery stores just to get you.Cristen: Oh, absolutely. Walk into any grocery store, and you've got neuroeconomics at it's finest form. You know, the area immediately inside a supermarket where they usually place a lot of displays and promotional items is called the decompression zone, and this is really where they want you to just take in the store, start seeing things that you want to buy, and then you move into fresh fruits and vegetables, and this always bugs me, and I think it bugs a lot of other people because if you buy your bananas first, and then you go buy your canned beans or whatever, your bananas are gonna get squashed, but the thinking behind this is that selecting your good, wholesome fresh foods is a good way to start shopping. You're doing something good for yourself, so that by the time you make your way to the middle of the store, and start running into, oh I don't know, Frito Lay products or something like that, you'll be more willing to indulge a little bit. Molly: Yeah. You start off good, and then you're like, oh well, I have fruit, I can have cookies, too. Cristen: Yeah, and they put the common items like milk, cheese, and eggs, things that most people just need to run in and buy in the back of the store, so that you have to walk through other aisles of food that you wouldn't normally walk through, and this is all to boost your dwell time, or the time in your store because the thinking goes that the longer you spend in a store the more likely you are to buy more.Molly: And plus I would bet, I mean there is no research on this, I would bet your brain gets tired. We were talking earlier about these transactions that are happening in our brain between pain and pleasure, but by the time you get to the cookie aisle, I don't know if your brain could still handle that. Mine can't, mine gets overloaded at the grocery store. Cristen: Yeah, just pick up the cookies.Molly: But thrifty nickel, I just have to consider, are grocery stores, by laying out their stores this way doing us a favor?Cristen: Uh, uh. Molly: Need a little more information?Cristen: Yeah. I can make a judgement call on that yet. Molly: I was looking at this Women's Health article, it's called How Manolos Can Save Your Life, and you may not like this, thrifty nickel, but the article says yes. The article talks about how great shopping makes you feel. It only talks about that pleasure center while ignoring the role of the insula, and it basically says that by activating that pleasure center so much, you're just releasing endorphins all throughout your body, and you're gonna be in great shape because of it. You're gonna be happier because of it. Essentially you'r e making the world a better place because not only are you buying something nice for yourself, you're helping out that lady in the shop, it's gonna be great. You're gonna stay active, you're gonna stay shopping, yeah consumerism. Cristen: All right Molly, I buy that there is an innate connection between pleasurable shopping and emotions, and all the positive effects of that, and that's fantastic, but Molly, how pleasurable, and how good for your brain is it going to be when you get your credit card bill in the mail six weeks later, and are $2000 in debt.Molly: That's true, you're gonna have to cancel your subscription to Women's Health Magazine, which who told you to do that in the first place, so let's go to a more reasonable source, I suppose. We'll go to The Boston Globe, which was also talking about the experiment that we talked about at the beginning of this podcast with the two parts of the brain that are in conflict.Cristen: The nucleus accumbens and the insula. Molly: Nice, so whenever you are deciding something, that's the deliberation that's going on in there, and they give us some tips on how to overcome the battle, to win our battle against our credit card debt.

Cristen: Okay, cognition over emotion. Molly: Yes, to say nothing of the hormones. But first, and foremost, researchers say you've got to stop using your credit card. It's too easy to do. You don't have that sense of guilt when you have to just swipe something that you will if you're counting out your cold hard cash.Cristen: Right, there's actual pain kind of associated with just seeing the cash leaving your hands. Molly: Or your nickels. Cristen: Or your nickels. Molly: I should probably stop mentioning that as much as I am, or you won't tell me anymore deep dark secrets, but yeah, that's why internet shopping is the worst. This is what I do when I feel bad. I just go on line and go to Amazon. Cristen: One click away.Molly: One click away, and you're done. So don't shop on line. Actually go to the store. You do need to know your feelings. Do you shop more when you're sad? Even men tend to shop when they're sad.Cristen: Yeah, I only shop if I'm in a shopping mood, and a lot of times I think it probably is more correlated if I'm feeling kind of down, I need a new shirt or something to boost my steam a little bit.Molly: Yeah, you're trying to activate that pleasure center, but you can't just be happy and go shopping because I was reading that if your pleasure center is already activated, you're like on a roll. For example, The Boston Globe talks about how men, who had just looked at erotic pictures were more likely to shop for more because they already had the pleasure center turned on, and they didn't want to turn it off.Cristen: Well.Molly: So don't look at erotic pictures before you go shopping. Lesson No. 2. Cristen: Important tip of the day. Well, Molly, one thing that you also have to avoid if we're talking about tips for overcoming this instinct to shop is avoiding the dressing room.Molly: Really?Cristen: Yes. An article in the Economist Magazine reported that if customers try something on, they have an 85 percent chance of actually buying it, as opposed to a 58 percent chance of seeing if they just like it on the rack. If you take it in there, it's commitment. You've taken the time, put it on, you've seen what's it like. You are imaging the shoes that will go with it, it's good as yours. Molly: Wow. All right, well one more tip for you. Don't buy so much in one store. Don't go into that dressing room with 20 things to try on because then like Cristen said, you're probably gonna walk out with 10, and its not gonna be such a big deal that you're buying so much anymore, whereas if you buy a $10 thing there and a $10 thing there, you notice more that you keep pulling out the credit card. Cristen: Right, just from experience, I think there's definitely sort of a threshold of shopping. For instance, I went shopping for makeup last weekend, and makeup is really easy for me to buy because it's very small, and a lot of times it will cost less than $30. So I went in, I was looking for new mascara, and I was like, all right, I got this, and I saw an eyeliner pencil. All of these things I can hold in my hand. By the time I left, I had like five things. Molly: Yeah, you got to keep moving.Cristen: But don't I look fabulous?Molly: Yes, I do wish you can see Cristen. But Cristen, this is a specific tip for you. It's our gimme our last one. It's specifically for those of us who try to be thrifty nickels every now and then, and that is, you have to beware of bargains sometimes because the lower price makes you think that you can't do anything wrong. It makes you think you can't go wrong, you've got to buy it, it's a bargain.Cristen: I have made many, many erroneous thrift store purchases. Molly: Yeah, so you've got to not let your insula - you know, we talked a lot about combating that pleasure center, but you also can't let your insula just guilt you into buying things because they're good deals. If you don't need it, you don't need it. Cristen: But you know what you do need, Molly.Molly: What?Cristen: More information about the brain and shopping. Molly: Tell me more.Cristen: So if you would like to learn more about all of this, and read the article Is My Brain Making Me Buy Things That I Don't Need by Julia Layton, you can go to and if you have any questions or comments for me or Molly you can E-mail us at

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