Consumer Behavior: Messages into the Void?

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (Viking, 2009)
. An old philosopher’s question asks: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” An updated version, tongue-in-cheek, is this: “If a man speaks in the forest and there’s no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?” In a new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, Geoffrey Miller asks a third question: If purchases are in fact messages—to possible mates, friends, or rivals—is anybody really getting the message?

Miller, of the University of New Mexico, looks at consumer behavior through the lens of the evolutionary psychologist. What he sees is a dance that has everything to do with biology. Through a series of experiments, he was able to demonstrate that people were “more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they were first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating” (John Tierney in The New York Times).

Then, having neatly delineated the messages that we send when we buy, Miller turns the tables, zeroing in on what he calls the “fundamental consumerist delusion”: in reality, nobody’s listening. Thus, however hopeful I may be that this expensive new watch will exude its power and precision onto my persona, that’s not gonna happen. The things we buy cannot transform us. And because they can’t, they won’t make much difference in how we’re treated.

For overshoppers, Miller’s book is a useful reminder that we’re driven to buy out of underlying needs. Acknowledging those needs and finding meaningful ways to fill them is the best way off the consumption treadmill. The alternative, hanging on, is nothing more than continuing to send messages into the void.

Recommended Reading: In the Red: The Diary of a Recovering Shopaholic, by Alexis Hall

Recently, a number of overconsumers have decided to make radical changes in the course of a year and then write about their experiences. Mary Carlomagno did it in Give it Up: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less, which we reviewed in Vol. 1, Number 2, March, 2006. She chronicled giving up one commodity—cell phone, shopping, chocolate, etc.—each month for a year. Judith Levine did something similar in Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, a report on the decision that she and her husband made to give up buying anything non-essential for a year. Now, Alexis Hall, a media relations officer in Scotland and former broadcast journalist, has done it too. With In the Red: The Diary of a Recovering Shopaholic, she documents a year-long experiment in vastly reduced consumption.

The rules were simple: she’d buy no new clothes, shoes, or accessories, unless it was an absolute emergency. She’d limit food and transportation to 5£ per day and limit other incidental purchases to absolute necessities. (She calibrates the word “necessity” this way: “limo hire never has been and never will be a necessity, but when you start looking like a Shetland pony, the haircut falls into the necessity category.”) A second pledge was to pay off as much of her ₤31,637.84 debt as she could—without putting anything on an existing credit card or opening any new ones: “This year, what goes down has to stay down. I’m the financial equivalent of a recovering bulimic.” And somewhere along the way, she decides to wear every single unworn, long-time inhabitant of her closet before the experiment ends. (Her reconnaissance doesn’t end until the very last month, when she notes on Day 323, that she’s still turning up clothes she’s never worn, not even in the changing room of the shop they were bought in, and “shoes that have never done a decent day’s walking in their life.”

The book is humorous and playful and imaginative, as well as deeply serious. To economize, Hall changes her mode of transportation to a scooter—which, she tells us, affords her “a vroom with a view.” When tickets to a Woodstock-like concert prove unaffordable, she and long-time partner Kevin find a low-cost, high fun way to experience it anyway: they get out their camping lantern, set up their tent, and watch it on television! Roughing it in their living room, they have a great view of the stage and don’t have to stand in line for the bathroom.

By experiment’s end, good company and conversation have trumped shoes, feet down. Lest it seem easy, however, we also see how in a split second Hall’s powerful intentions can be interrupted by irritability, murderous thoughts and glances, jealousy of Kevin’s new clothes, and occasional slips. What saves her, it seems, are a prodigious capacity to laugh at herself and the world, a creative playfulness, the love of her dog, friends, and family, and the comfort of living in a space that’s no longer crammed with mess and clutter. By day 140, “money, or the lack of it, is no longer the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning.” Gradually, she realizes that “I’ve been so preoccupied with what I can have next . . . that I haven’t been able to enjoy what I already had.” The openness and wit of Hall’s account makes In the Red compulsive reading for any shopaholic wanting to stop.

Recommended Reading: Going Broke:
Why Americans Can’t Hold Onto Their Money
By Stuart Vyse
(Oxford University Press, 2008)

Stuart Vyse’s Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money brings an important historical perspective to a current crisis, approaching debt not primarily as an individual issue but as a far broader sociological one. Vyse views our present debting behavior in the context of historical economic influences, moral financial perspectives, the evolution of credit and bankruptcy laws, and modern shopping and payment systems. He writes about “the new physics of spending and wanting,” including the roles of telecommunications, advertising, and the media, and shows how these combine to challenge our self-control and influence the public’s perception of debt.

Vyse doesn’t only explain why millions of Americans are falling into debt so easily and quickly. He offers numerous strategies for saving more, spending less, and wanting less, and he outlines the public policies that he hopes will reshape the American economic landscape. Going Broke proclaims: “we must recognize that we are all part of one great collective resource [and] we must work together to avoid the tragedies we see around us.” Drawing on developments in contemporary psychology and behavioral economics, and prefacing each chapter with personal accounts of Americans who’ve followed a variety of paths to debt, Vyse educates, prepares, and inspires Americans to create financial health for themselves.

Recommended Reading: Mindfulness and Money: The Buddhist Path of Abundance

An overshopper who completed the Stopping Overshopping Program read Mindfulness and Money shortly after she’d finished the work of the program. She recommended it highly. We asked her if she’d consider writing a short review for the newsletter and she’s graciously accepted.

Two years ago, I was deeply in debt and fighting the urge to shop on a daily basis. Jewelry was my drug of choice: I couldn’t have enough; I couldn’t buy enough. My life was falling apart and I had no idea how to fix it. The Stopping Overshopping program changed all that. I’m now debt-free, I have a rainy day fund, and I finally know what’s important. (It’s not jewelry!)

Shortly after I finished the program, a friend recommended that I read Mindfulness and Money: The Buddhist Path of Abundance. I thought maybe the book would help me with money management; instead, it deepened my understanding and attitudes about money. I learned that I can act skillfully or unskillfully in regards to money, creatively or reactively. I learned about five precepts that lead to the Path of Abundance, all of them extending or elaborating what I’d learned in the program: Cultivate Loving-Kindness, Cultivate Generosity, Cultivate Contentment, Be Honest, and Be More Aware. Especially helpful to me was the discussion of the third precept, “Cultivate Contentment,” and the five powerful antidotes it offers to compulsive spending urges:

  • cultivate the opposite: think about all the creative ways to spend time rather than succumbing to the desire to shop;
  • consider the consequences of allowing your craving to continue unchecked: figure out what it’s costing you;
  • cultivate a sky-like mind: attend to the feelings and cravings as they pass through your mind without acting upon them. (The practice of meditation is recommended.)
  • suppress the urges or simply tell them “no”;
  • make a commitment to change and to the cultivation of your highest values.

Money can cause suffering, as I and other overshoppers know only too well. But it doesn’t have to. This excellent book gives us the means to achieve peace around money.

Recommended Reading: Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children,
 Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole

Consumed offers a disturbing and thought-provoking look into the consumer capitalist system that dominates American society. In bold brush strokes, Barber paints a global economy that is oversaturated with goods and must, therefore, have as its primary goal the manufacturing of needs as opposed to goods. After all, there have to be enough shoppers to consume these products. In this new form of manufacture and market—as we’ve seen already in Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids and Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy—children become targets while adults are infantilized and then seduced into buying what they now believe they “need.”

Drawing on current box office numbers, pop trends, Google search statistics, new social values, economic trends, and much more, Barber reveals a world of consumerism that encourages grown-ups to be “kidults,” to remain as infantile and self-centered as possible, while at the same time priming children to consume at ever younger and younger ages.

Exposing the dark side of these market trends, Barber illustrates how the freedoms of the free market economy have undermined the freedoms of the thoughtful adult citizen. In place of the Protestant ethic, which encouraged restraint, preparation, protection, service, and self-sacrifice for children and community, we’re continually seduced into an “infantilist” ethic of consumption: we’re programmed to prefer what’s easy over hard, simple over complex, and fast over slow. While Consumed is not addressed to overshoppers directly, it raises such relevant questions about problem shopping as these: In a society already plagued by the impulse to overshop, are we raising a generation of shopping addicts? If so, where can we begin to make changes? How can we bring our impulses as consumers into line with our convictions and values as citizens? And how can we safeguard our diversity when every sphere of life seems to be taken over by the marketplace?

Recommended Reading: Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive
Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding

Many visitors to our website have described themselves (or been described by family or friends) in ways that suggest hoarding, and so we’re particularly pleased to come upon this sensible and functional resource. Compulsive saving—hoarding—is typically diagnosed when all three of the following criteria are met: 1) there is the accumulation of objects that most people would consider of very limited value (newspapers, for example) or useful only in small numbers (shoes or fountain pens, for instance), and there is great difficulty in discarding them; 2) the resultant clutter is severe enough that portions of the home are difficult to access or downright unusable; and 3) the behavior results in significant impairment or distress. Until now, we haven’t known of a research proven, time-tested program to recommend. But with the publication of this book, there’s now exactly what the title promises: help for compulsive acquiring, saving, and hoarding.

Tolin, Frost, and Steketee define and describe hoarding and discuss how it develops, giving context to the cognitive, affective, and behavioral factors involved. The authors show that in the cognitive domain, hoarders often have difficulties processing information, and in the affective domain, they form strong emotional attachments to their possessions, about which they have unhealthy and unhelpful beliefs. The book also shows how people who hoard have been positively reinforced for both avoidant and acquisitive behaviors.

Buried in Treasures has useful, practical, and structured exercises that build on each other. Additionally, it makes helpful distinctions between “bad guys” and “good guys,” between types of distorted thinking and strategies for clearing away those distortions. The “bad guys,” which sabotage a hoarder’s attempts at reform, include 1) the refusal to set a high priority on the problem, 2) the inability to let go of unhelpful beliefs, 3) a pattern of overthinking or confusing oneself, 4) the habit of avoidance and excuse-making, and 5) the seizing of short-term payoffs in preference to far larger long-term ones. The “good guys,” which put the compulsive saver back in control, include 1) keeping your eyes on the prize, 2) thinking things through, 3) doing behavioral experiments to test out possibilities, 4) developing specific organizational skills, and 5) taking a systematic and strategic approach to problem-solving.

Particularly strong is the chapter on enhancing motivation. First there’s an excellent, non-judgmental explanation of the intricacies of motivation and the need to give oneself a motivational boost. This is followed by material designed to help the reader assess his or her own readiness to work on the problem of hoarding. There’s also a section to help the person who hoards think about personal goals: about what he or she wants to accomplish and about how he or she wants things to be after finishing the program.

Typical of the book’s practical approach are its two chapters on sorting and discarding. The first deals strictly with preparation—how to get ready for the sorting process and how to stay motivated—while the second treats the nuts and bolts of the actual sorting and organizing. Throughout Buried in Treasures, Tolin, Frost, and Steketee emphasize—as do we at Stopping Overshopping—that to really stick with the Program and do all of the work, most hoarders need strong motivation and the support of some combination of family, friends, a coach, or a therapist. So in addition to its recommendations for hoarders, the book also offers helpful information on how to bring the problem to a loved one’s attention, how to help others stay motivated toward change, and, for coaches, how to accompany a hoarder on a non-acquiring trip.

Recommended Reading: Secret Keeping: Overcoming Hidden Habits
and Addictions John Howard Prin 
(New World Library, 2006)

Shame and denial about their behavior propels many overshoppers to hide this addiction—from other people and from themselves. While Secret Keeping does not address the compulsive buyer directly, its focus on the keeping of guilt-laden secrets—and on the compromises and consequences that such a life stance mandates—is very pertinent. According to Prin, secret keepers lead double lives, risking their relationships and their reputations; they seem to “find the risks, thrills, and taboo nature of their habits too strong to resist.” Prin knows whereof he speaks. He shares with the reader his own history of living in two worlds for 40 years, richocheting between public respectability and private temptations.” Temptation, craving, the excitement of breaking rules, indulgence in the forbidden, delight in not getting caught, and guilt—these are what hold secret-keepers captive. They act one way, while feeling another; they put appearance first, reality second. Extremely motivating, Secret Keeping suggests ways to gradually replace a closed, secretive, and fear-driven life with a courageous, open, and honest one. Prin concludes that “we’re only as sick as our secrets.”

Recommended Reading Green with Envy: Why Keeping Up With The Joneses is Keeping Us In Debt

Haven’t we been taught to believe that envy, the only vice warned against in both the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins, is a seriously destructive emotion? There are exceptions. Shira Boss’s envy of her neighbors in the apartment next door was the productive seed that grew into this unusual look at an aspect of our collective dark underbelly. Wholeheartedly refreshing, her candor about her own jealousy and competitive feelings gives the reader some rarely granted permission to get in touch with his or her own.

Money has been described as the last taboo, harder to talk about than almost anything else, including sex. Even among therapists, money may be the most ignored subject in their training and their actual practice. Boss argues that the taboo is counterproductive and makes the point, again and again, that it’s extremely important to be able to talk about money, how we feel about what we have and what we don’t, and how we feel about what other people have. Only in this way can we begin to let go of the invidious and misery-making comparisons that are so prevalent among us, and learn to count our own blessings.

Boss won the trust of people at several points along the socioeconomic spectrum. Her interviews invite us into their life stories, where they share with us what life lessons envy, being envied, and fearing envy has taught them. Zeroing in on a high-earning couple in one chapter, we see how mutual denial about spending forced them to file for bankruptcy. In another chapter, [Boss] focuses her lens on members of Congress, some of whom save money by sleeping in their offices when they’re in Washington. Boss also profiles the current baby boomer generation who, born into post-World War II euphoria, have had enormously high expectations, are spenders rather than savers, and carry around a completely different attitude toward debt than their parents. The final group she shines a light onto are the ultra rich, who have their own version of keeping up with the Joneses that is no less painful, sometimes even moreso, than those at the opposite end of the wealth continuum. When we hear their poignant and, at times, tragic details, one can only conclude that having an abundance of money can cause as many problems as not having enough.

Currently in America, there are 1.6 million people filing for bankruptcy each year; there are more bankruptcies than divorces and more bankruptcies than students graduating from 4-year colleges. The financial, emotional, occupational, and spiritual costs of materialism are exceedingly high. Boss suggests that what we need to do is to tame our preoccupation with what other people seem to have, and mindfully let go of our fixation on how much better our lives would be if we had more. Though this is not easily accomplished, the book ends with some very useful steps to take to vanquish your particular version of the green-eyed monster.

Recommended Reading: I Want it Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World Donna Bee-Gates (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Scheduled for publication in January (Palgrave Macmillan), Donna Bee-Gates’ I Want It Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World is ambitious in its scope, depth, and mission. Bee-Gates forcefully argues that too much consumerism is hazardous to children’s health. She documents the rise in materialism in our culture (and throughout the world) and the risks it poses, and she presents the rewards of letting go of our excessive focus on material goods and focusing instead on inspiring wonder in children. Bee-Gates shows how parents can regulate the extent to which consumption becomes a dominant focus. She demonstrates that children don’t have to equate possessions with self-worth, that they can learn to value belongings rather than depending on them. Using “the spending cure”—soothing discomfort with a little something new—is just one of the many ways we sell children short. Instead, children need to develop the capacity to tolerate some discomfort, and they need to be soothed by relationships and activities. Parents who take to heart the wise counsel of Donna Bee-Gates, buttressed as it is by the solid research findings she seamlessly interweaves with her own thinking, will change their own lives and the lives of their children.

Recommended Reading: Hooked: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume Stephanie Kaza, ed. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005)

Buddhism contains some wonderfully apt messages that concern “affluenza” and “luxury fever,” our modern day plagues of materialism and overconsump-tion, and reading this extraordinary and diverse collection is a very inviting way to access those messages. Compiled by Stephanie Kaza at the Univer-sity of Vermont, these essays sharply challenge today’s ingrained cultural assumption that what’s most important is to look out for yourself, as op-posed to caring for others. Kaza and her contributors view consumerism as a political and economic ideology that’s been foisted on us by greedy corpo-rate interests and their sophisticated marketing arms. But buying, the essays in Hooked demonstrate, is not the path either to self- or social improvement. Instead, consumerism strips individuals of both money and contentment, even as it strips the earth of resources.

As a group, these essays clarify the Buddhist concept of attachment and de-sire, and explore how desire is related to addiction and suffering The essays also offer satisfying suggestions about the cultivation of wisdom as well as tools to work with the modern challenges of consumerism. No careful reader of Hooked can toss it aside and return unthinking to material acquisition. Once you’ve read, for example, Pema Chodron’s “How We Get Hooked, How We Get Unhooked” and Diana Winston’s “You Are What You Download,” you see the issue of acquisition from a broader perspective, with wider, wiser eyes.