Avis Cardella is the author of ‘Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict’. She has written over 200 feature articles, essays and news stories for British Vogue, American Photo, WSJ.com, Oprah.com, Quest,Surface, and Glamour UK among other publications. She lives in Paris with her husband.
I have a persistent nightmare that one day we’ll all shop in our sleep. We will no longer need cash or credit cards; we will have become the credit card. What we desire—the images we conjure in our grey matter of all that we wish to possess, will register somewhere on the frontal cortex. Then, in an undisclosed location, in a vast stock house of unimaginable proportions, the items will quickly be fetched, dispatched and end up at our doorsteps, if not in our closets, by morning’s first light. The price of said items will automatically be deducted from some sort of newfangled bank that also resides in our minds, or perhaps our hearts, or even souls. Take your pick.
Lately, this nightmare seems much closer to becoming a reality. I’ve been reading articles about augmented shopping — point, click and purchase opportunities never seen before. One article highlights something called Presence, a phone application, which, as its name implies, will recognize your presence in a shop and upload product recommendations (based on your previously tracked spending habits) directly to your phone.
ScanLife, another smartphone application, offers, among other things, the ultimate in instant gratification: simply wave your phone in front of a store’s window, even while the store is closed, and voila, the product on display is yours!
Since I am an ex-shopping addict, I meet this news with both fascination and trepidation. Having been someone who shopped nearly every day for 15 years — and at one point found myself with the purchasing “freedom” represented by eight credit cards — I understand the siren-call of the non-stop shopping experience. Innocuous as these newfangled applications seem, they remain symbolic of the pervasiveness of something I’ve fought to leave behind.
My struggle to overcome shopping addiction has rewarded me with some hard-won lessons: recognizing the difference between my wants and my needs, acknowledging mindful consumption versus mindless acquisition, and most important, appreciating deferred gratification over succumbing to impulsive buying.
But it’s not only technology, which appears to be mocking my newfound propriety over once out of control shopping habits; science impinges as well.
The science I refer to is neuro-marketing, or consumer neuroscience, a sub-area of neuro-economics that investigates “the shoppers mind.” What this lofty science reveals, courtesy of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which literally take pictures of brain activity, is that when my brain sees something it likes specific areas light up, oxygen rushes in and chemicals flow. Internal estuaries of serotonin and dopamine are responsible for leading me into temptation; the shopper’s high is real.
In a report titled “A Current Overview of Consumer Neuroscience,” writers Mirja Hubert and Peter Kenning propose several positive aspects of studying the consumer mind. One suggestion is that “consumer neuroscience can yield a more complete and objective understanding” of consumer desires. Another point, more personally relevant, is that the science can hopefully answer the question: what are the neural correlates of shopping addiction?
Maybe I am a more finely tuned machine than I ever realized, with precise neural correlates dictating my compulsive buying. But how would that account for the changes I’ve made in response to what was once my shopping addiction? Hasn’t my desire to stop shopping compulsively been an exercise in something known as free will?
I’d like to believe I’ve done some mind mining that would make Freud proud, though Freud suddenly seems quaint in light of these futuristic advances. What becomes clear is that all that was once examined on the proverbial couch will eventually become the exclusive domain of the laboratory. Armies of neuro-psychotropic drugs are already marching in to replace the talking cure.
From all indications, these brave new worlds of smart technologies and neurosciences will continue to hurtle us toward my nightmare shopping slumber scenario. They will evolve to escort us, as seamlessly as possible, to that credit center of the soul. I already know that I don’t want to go. In many ways, I’ve already been there. So, I will resist. I promise myself. Golden slumbers…sleep now…do not buy.