There's Primitive Psychology at Work in That Shopping Spree

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c. 2004 Newhouse News Service

Welcome to the season of the impulse purchase and heavily trafficked parking lots. While battling the crowds at your local mall, and laden with packages, you may find yourself asking, "Why do we shop, anyway?"

It's more complex than simply meeting our needs.

Shopping taps into a part of our nature shared with the wolf stalking prey or a bird searching out fluffy scraps to line its nest.

"What you or I do at the mall is really not a lot different from what our furry and feathered friends do outside; it's foraging," explained Don Hantula, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"Foraging" is just the word Diana Palmer uses to describe a recent trip to Macy's, where she found a new couch slipcover while combing through merchandise.

"It's the thrill of the hunt," said Palmer, 58, a secretary in New York. "My heart starts to beat and I get excited," she said, describing the moment of a find. "I have a shopping buddy who says, 'Calm down, it's not going anywhere.' My eyes glaze over."

In bygone eras, such epiphanies were the stuff of religious experiences in which we found meaning and identity, said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida.

"It's the air going out of the lungs, and the sense that I'm special ... that has been captured and repackaged by people who are selling you super-expensive scarves," said Twitchell, author of "Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury."

People don't want to own objects so much as to capture what those things represent the meaning they convey, he said. Today we are described by what we buy and where we shop, in contrast to times when religion, race and ancestry fixed identity and limited social mobility.

But keep in mind, as you eye the latest electronic gadget or winter clothing fashions, that the drive to spend has contributed to Americans' $2 trillion in consumer debt, $750 billion of which is revolving loans such as credit cards. One thing that is supposed to separate us from animals is our ability to suppress primal impulses.

People in every income group aspire, often unconsciously, to the spending levels of wealthier neighbors, said Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management.

"The extra spending at the top does cascade down and influences the standards of the rest of us," said Frank, who calls the phenomenon "a consumption arms race." "You've got people doing clerical work who think they have to start the day with a $4 cup of coffee."

It's the thought of going into debt that gives self-control to Mukti Chemitiganti, 25, an associate in the apparel industry in New York, fan of designer labels and self-described impulsive shopper.

"You wish you could stay and buy, and then your sensibility takes over," Chemitiganti said.

Even so, she relishes the power and excitement that come from shopping for designer clothes, which she concedes are one step above what she can really afford. "It's a fabulous feeling; you feel like a different person," she said. "It's a little bit of a guilty pleasure."

Shopping styles can reflect deeply held values about the role of money, the importance of service or a sense of individuality.

Melinda Walsh, 46, a broadcast producer and actress in Baton Rouge, La., frequents boutiques where the service is better and more personal. "My time and effort and aggravation is more important than a dollar saved," Walsh said.

Identity is tied up in spending even for people like Susan Viator, 43, a home-schooling mom in Portland, Ore., who is on a tight budget and takes pride in eschewing the consumer mentality.

"If we ended up with a huge amount of money for some reason, I would continue to pay attention to where I shop and do things like shopping at Goodwill because I resent enriching people who are charging you for that brand name and not the quality of the garment," Viator said. "I hate having to spend money. I think everything is too expensive. I'm just horrified by the prices that are charged for things."

And September Sparks, 40, a social worker in Cleveland, prides herself on being a bargain shopper and informed consumer.

"I am very aware of advertising techniques and sales techniques," Sparks said.

She researches big purchases, so she's prepared if she sees an item on sale. That happened recently on a trip through discount retailer Costco, where Sparks snapped up a digital camera for $280 that had been listed for $400 in Consumer Reports.

"If it hadn't been a deal I probably would've waited longer," she said.

People are more likely to buy if they perceive an item as scarce. One study found that people would normally buy two cans of 50-cent soup, but purchased six when the store set a per-person limit of six, said Katherine Harris, a marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

Similarly, the belief that an item is unique or that its low price is fleeting can trigger a purchase.

Vivian Wenli Lin, 25, a video artist in New York, browses through second-hand clothing stores because she loves a bargain and doesn't want to follow mainstream trends.

"I get a kick when people ask me, 'Where did you get that?' I say, 'I got it used and you can't have it,'" Lin said. "I dress not to be functional, but to be different."

Such shopping can boost self-esteem and reduce stress, said Boston College psychology professor Joseph Tecce: "Every purchase that a person makes is a gift to him or herself. We all like gifts, and gifts make us feel better about ourselves. ... It gives us an illusion of control over our lives."

The holiday season accounts for about a quarter of all retail sales each year. Americans expect to spend an average $730 on presents, according to an annual poll by the Gallup Organization.

"That number gets larger as we get closer to Christmas," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, based in Princeton, N.J. "People realize that they are spending more than they planned."

And of course, when shopping for others we often encounter something for ourselves.

This article was originally published by Newhouse News Service on Wednesday, November 24, 2004.