Thursday, November 10, 2022

Depression and Shopping

We are highly illogical people!

There is an old vaudeville joke that goes something like this:

SHE: Whenever I'm down in the dumps, I get a new hat!

HE: So that's where you get them!


It is a silly joke, but illustrates that it is a time-honored tradition to "cure the blues" through shopping.  People crave that tiny bit of dopamine they get from carrying home a bag from a high-end department store, with carefully folded new outfit in it.  Make sure the neighbors see the logo on the bag when you walk into the house!

Of course, the end result is more misery when the credit card bills come due and you have to pay for those purchases.  That's depressing.  I know, let's cure the blues by going to the shopping mall!  No harm in "window-shopping" - right?

A friend of mine was telling me about an acquaintance of theirs.  Apparently, this person suffers from depression on occasion, and when they do, they go out and buy a brand-new car.  The dopamine rush from new-car smell apparently snaps them out of depression, for a while, anyway.  I was kind of floored by this comment, but then again, it explained a lot of human behavior.

The automobile is almost incidentally a mode of transportation.  It is often more of a status symbol or identity talisman.  Who you are, in America, is defined by what you do for a living, what neighborhood you live in, and what you drive.  And if you don't have a status job or live in a fancy neighborhood, well, at least you can afford a fancy car - right?  You see more status cars parked in apartment complexes than in some "rich" neighborhoods.  I think it was Vance Packard whose book, The Hidden Persuaders mentioned this effect - that there more Cadillacs parked in front of hovels than mansions.  That was back in the 1950's - it hasn't changed much today, other than what is the definition of a status car.

My friend's story struck me, though.  And no doubt, marketers and psychologists understand this effect completely.  People are, by and large, herd animals and also addicts - seeking dopamine hits to alleviate their staggering depression.  They find this through drinking, drugs, sex, gambling, risk-taking, and of course, shopping.  You buy something you feel elated, and nothing makes you feel good like a new car.  Show it off to your friends!  Pride of ownership! (which is crazy).  And of course, everyone secretly believes they are better than the hoi polloi based on what they are driving.   Even the guy driving the junker thinks he is better than the jerk in the BMW because he is "renouncing materialism."

They have us - by the nuts.  People are so predictable and so vulnerable, that harvesting their wallets is the easiest game in town.  Talk to anyone who runs an MLM scheme.  They aren't selling soap or essential oils or makeup or knives - they are selling dopamine!  By the gallon!  It isn't just like a cult, it is a cult.  And cults know how to "love bomb" the newbies so they get addicted to that dopamine rush.  The they taper off the dosage so the junkie works harder and harder for less and less reward.  Like shooting fish in a barrel.

I am not sure how to avoid this trap, since we are all humans and all prone to weakness.   I guess the only realization I got out of this is that some of us are more vulnerable than others and thus easier to exploit.

I felt sorry for the new-car guy, as buying a car isn't fun to me, just an expense and each time you buy, you fritter away more of your wealth and control of your life.  And the "rush" of ownership fades fast - which is why so many people trade-in or lease every few years - squandering money even faster.  The marketing people know this - and they know that people seek not mere transportation, but something more psychological.

Maybe - just maybe - it is possible that if we cognitively understand our own impulses and emotions, we can at least rein in our worst excesses.

Maybe.  It's worth a shot!