Retail Mind Manipulation
Believe it or not, freewill, to a large extent, is an illusion. For the most part, what you do, as you go through your day is based on decisions made outside of your conscious awareness. Many of these decisions involve a complicated and largely unconscious interplay among various brain regions that each struggle for control of your behavior.
One has to be careful to avoid anthropomorphic tendencies when trying to understand this epic struggle. It is not as though there are specific Freudian (Id, Ego, Superego) forces at play, each with a specific and unique mission. In reality it is more like chemical warfare going on in your brain – where neurotransmitters are released by those relevant brain centers based on current environmental circumstances (what your senses perceive in the world), your previous experiences in similar circumstances, and your treasure trove of knowledge. The subsequent emotions triggered by those neurotransmitters are then weighed out in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in what has essentially been a tug of war involving varying measures of reinforcement and punishment.
Most of us are unaware of this neurological process and are under the illusion that we go through life making rational reason-based decisions. Although we may live within this illusion, the people who layout super center floor plans or produce advertisements know the truth. This discrepancy in knowledge makes you vulnerable. They use their knowledge of how the brain works in a manipulative and concerted effort to help you part ways with your hard earned money. It is not really a conspiracy, it is just an effort to gain a competitive advantage. It’s business.
Following is an abbreviated explanation of the brain systems in play and then an expose of how marketers use our brains against us. This information is drawn from Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book entitled How We Decide.
First there is the dopamine reward pathway. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that serves a number of important functions in the brain. One of its most cogent roles is played out as a result of activation of the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). When the NAcc is activated it floods the brain with dopamine and we as a result experience pleasure. Desire for an item activates the NAcc. Being in the presence of the desired item activates it further. The greater the arousal of the NAcc the more pleasure we experience. It is your NAcc that is responsible for the happiness you feel when you eat a piece of chocolate cake, or listen to your favorite song, or watch your sports team win an exciting game (Lehrer, 2009).
Then there is the insula – a brain region that produces among other sensations, aversive feelings. In a New York Times article on the insula, Sandra Blakeslee (2006) noted that this center “lights up” in brain scans when people feel pain, anticipate pain, empathize with others, see disgust on someone’s face, are shunned in a social settings, and decide not to buy an item. In many cases we avoid exciting the insula as it is the system that produces the unpleasantness of caffeine or nicotine withdrawal and the negative feelings associated with spending money.
Super stores are designed to excite your NAcc and quiet the insula. You can’t help but notice when you walk into a Target, Walmart, Lowes, or even Pier 1 Imports just how much stuff is there – most of which you do not possess. Just by entering the store you have aroused your NAcc and the associated cravings. Lehrer (2009) notes:
“Just look at the interior of a Costco warehouse. It’s no accident that the most coveted items are put in the most prominent places. A row of high-definition televisions lines the entrence. The fancy jewelry, Rolex watches, iPods, and other luxury items are conspicuously placed along the corridors with the heaviest foot traffic. And then there are the free samples of food, liberally distributed throughout the store. The goal of a Costco is to constantly prime the pleasure centers of the brain, to keep us lusting after things we don’t need. Even though you probably wont buy the Rolex, just looking at the fancy watch makes you more likely to buy something else, since the desired item activates the NAcc. You have been conditioned to crave a reward.”
He further noted:
“But exciting the NAcc is not enough; retailers must also inhibit the insula. This brain area is responsible for making sure you don’t get ripped off, and when it’s repeatedly assured by retail stores that low prices are “guaranteed,” or that a certain item is on sale, or that it’s getting the “wholesale price,” the insula stops worrying so much about the price tag. In fact, researchers have found that when a store puts a promotional sticker next to a price tag – something like “Bargain Buy!” or “Hot Deal!” – but doesn’t actually reduce the price, sales of that item still dramatically increase. The retail tactics lull the brain into buying more things, since the insula is pacified. We go broke convinced that we are saving money.”
I hypothesize that the frequently redundant catalogs that routinely fill our mailboxes from retailers like LLBean and Lands End work on our brains much like super centers do. They excite the NAcc with idealized images modeled by perfect pretty people. They pacify the insula by noting improved features, sales, and deep discounts on closeouts. The necessary use of credit cards, Lehrer (2009) notes, has an additional inhibitory affect on the insula. When the insula is calm and you are primed with dopamine, the pleasure center has a disproportional amount of control. You may think you have complete rational control over this – but all this takes place outside of your direct awareness and plays out as feelings that guide your behavior. I further hypothesize that online retail stores work in a similar way (although for some the insula may be aroused by security issues pertaining to using a credit card online). Regardless, substantial marketing attempts by companies like EMS, REI, Victoria’s Secrets, LLBean, Bath & Body Works fill my in box, always hoping to draw in my NAcc and pacify my insula and subsequently open my wallet. You have to guess that the amount of money devoted to catalogs and internet marketing pays off for these companies or they wouldn’t do it.
Being aware of one’s neurology and how we are manipulated may help us mediate these unconscious forces and thus help us make better decisions. I myself try to avoid Malls and stores like Target because of the feelings they create in me. And for this very reason, I’ve stopped routinely looking at catalogs. I try to shop based only on need – not want. I’m making progress – but it is hard – these patterns have been in place and reinforced for a long time.
Blakeslee, Sandra. 2007. Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/06/health/psychology/06brain.html?emc=eta1&pagewanted=all
Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.