Shopping addiction and a divisive will

Neuroscientist & Clinical Neurologist

Dear Dr Ash,

Ever since my first job as a paper-round boy I’ve always spent my cash on frivolous things. Over lockdown my idle purchasing became borderline compulsive as I was on Amazon and eBay every other day buying kitchen implements, crockery, T-shirts, face lotions, garden ornaments, two ukuleles that I don’t play and a hot tub I almost never use. The problem is that even though lockdown is long over, and I know these purchases make no real sense, I can’t seem to stop the spending. I get depressed when there’s a lull in some kind of envelope or package dropping through my door. I’m a teacher, so I can’t afford this flow of goods and it really annoys my boyfriend, who’s very frugal. He says it would be hard to live with someone who’s so careless with money (we are talking about moving in together). I know the money would be better diverted towards saving for the long-term, like a deposit for a house, but I can’t motivate myself to think that way.

Spendthrift of Yeovil

All you want is another rush… just one click

Dear Spendthrift,

I went to secondary school in southwest Ohio, in a suburban town with vast corn fields on one side and a shopping mall with a huge car park on the other. My school was called Kettering Fairmont High, home of the Fighting Firebirds, and like the local hospital, the arts centre, and the town itself, it was named after Charles F Kettering. Kettering was an engineer and inventor who made the bulk of his fortune in the automotive industry, developing the electric starter motor and leaded petrol. He was held up to us as a model of American ingenuity and drive, a godlike hero of early capitalism. In 1929 he wrote a short essay addressed to his industry colleagues, entitled “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied”, in which he pointed out that a salesperson’s job was to sell his customer the most wonderful, life-changing car in the world, and then, the following day, convince the same customer that his one-day-old car was essentially worthless. The relentless creation of both desire and dissatisfaction, Kettering argued, would be the engine driving progress and economic prosperity.

I reread Kettering’s essay a few years ago, on a trip home to see my parents. The corn fields are still there, although the corn is only grown for animal feed – the farmers eat at McDonald’s and KFC like everyone else. The mall closed a long time ago; broken bottles and rubbish are strewn around the parking lot. The automotive industry, once the lifeblood of our town, has been replaced with a booming healthcare industry. Walk-in dialysis centres and diabetes clinics have opened where once there were gleaming car showrooms. Ironically, one of the wealthiest employers in the region today is the Kettering Cancer Center.

What Kettering’s essay makes clear is that the cycle of desire and dissatisfaction is not an accidental by-product of capitalism but essential to making its wheels go around. And, to our detriment, it is also a natural consequence of our neurochemistry. When we anticipate a pleasant experience, be it a new car or an Amazon package in the mail, the brain’s reward network is activated and releases a flood of dopamine. In the short term, this feels amazing; dopamine is also the neurotransmitter that underlies our response to cocaine. It heightens experiences, focuses attention and drives out all other thoughts. It also disappears very quickly, leaving the brain depleted and dull. In that grey, listless state all you want is another rush. And online, all it takes is one click.

You may feel you are struggling with financial discipline and planning, but I think what you’re really experiencing is addiction. It sounds like you’re getting diminishing pleasure from the highs and increasing depression and guilt from the lows. Like anyone with an addiction, you may find it very difficult to stop this behaviour. Reasoning about your long-term financial plans won’t get you there. You’ll have to look at what psychological needs you are trying to fill with your purchases: are you buying products that enhance your self-worth, that make you feel safe, that make you feel glamorous or powerful? I’m sure that, at the time, that second ukulele represented something that really mattered to you. If you can figure out what inner needs these purchases represent, you can start to meet those needs on your own. At the end of his essay, Kettering wrote, “If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no one would want it. The ore wouldn’t be mined; timber wouldn’t be cut.” I can assure you that, back in my hometown, the ore has been mined. The timber has been cut. And I hope you can find a better way.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dear Dr. Ash,

I am 64 years old and at that stage when you begin to feel that life is short and illness or misadventure can carry you off at a moment’s notice. So I’ve decided to update my will, just in case something unexpected happens. My last one was written when I was still married and my two children were in their teens. My older son is now an accountant who owns several properties and seems assured of a nice lifestyle, while my daughter is a storyteller and poet who can barely pay her rent. So, I’m thinking of leaving half my estate to my daughter (assuming it doesn’t all go on my care home costs) and the other half to an eco-charity, like Greenpeace – as conservation is my life’s passion. My son really doesn’t need my help. But my best friend has said this will lead to jealousy and terrible problems between my children; also, that they will both resent me for leaving money to charity. What should I do?

Torn and Confused

A sense of fairness is innate, even in infants as young as six months

Dear Torn,

Neuroscientists are not generally known for their dinner party skills, and while I have long resented that stereotype, sometimes we do things that just add fuel to the fire. A friend of mine in grad school introduced me to what she called the “Ultimatum Game”, which must surely rank as the worst party game ever devised. It goes like this: player A is given some money, let’s say £10. He or she must then offer some of that money to Player B. If Player B agrees to accept the gift, both players get paid. If Player B rejects the offer, neither gets anything. No matter what, of course, everyone has a horrible evening – but leaving that aside, let’s consider some interesting patterns that emerge.

From a purely rational point of view, Player B should accept absolutely any offer. After all, winning even £0.50 makes them marginally better off than they were before. But humans are not purely rational creatures, and heaven protect any Player A that attempts such an insultingly low offer. On average, about half of players in the B position insist on an offer over £2. Most will settle for something around £4, leaving Player A with a reasonable £6. My teenage son declares he will not settle for anything less than £9 on the annoyingly rational basis that I would still stand £1 better than when I started. He also resents it when I call him “my little outlier”.

This variation in perceptions of fairness provides fertile ground for experimental science. The Ultimatum Game has been used to explore economic decision making, in-group and out-group bias, the effect of social learning and social validation, and of course the brain basis of fairness. Across all of these studies, a few things have become clear. First, a sense of fairness is innate: infants as young as six months demonstrate a sensitivity towards fair and unfair outcomes, as do social animals like chimpanzees. Second, this natural sense of fairness involves brain networks more involved with reward and punishment than with computation and comparison – fairness is a feeling, not a decision. Finally, because it’s a feeling, the sense of fairness does not correlate with measurable outcomes. Fairness seems to be more about social cohesion and the emotional enforcement of social norms than about equitable distribution of resources. That’s why the £0.50 offer so offends our sensibilities – we recognise there’s a difference between the haves and the have-nots, but we don’t want our noses rubbed in it.

This perspective on fairness as an emotion might give you some insights into your dilemma. You and your two children are trying to find the optimal emotional outcome, but you are approaching it in a computational way. As you write, the future is uncertain, for you as well as for them. Your accountant son may lose his job in the next financial collapse, your poetic daughter may find a golden opportunity as a writer. Reality today might not be the same tomorrow. My advice is that you initially offer to split your estate equally in thirds, with one portion for each of your children and one portion to go to a charity that you all agree to support as a family. Then you sit down and discuss this proposal cooperatively over several nice dinners. Tune in to each other’s sense of fairness, be aware that you may not all share the same definition of what that is, and do not rely on numerical arguments or future predictions to persuade each other. There are many, many ways to have a warm, loving conversation about this, but any form of the ultimatum game is not one of them.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

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