The Science Behind my Compulsion to Shop – and How to Become a Smarter Spender

Editor’s Note: This summer we have two communications interns working with us to write stories about research at the hospital and their experiences being part of the hospital community. This is a post by our intern Catherine Iannucci, a student at Emerson College .

Cat-shoppingphoto (002)

My name is Catherine, and I am a compulsive buyer.

As a college student living in Boston, I have a limited budget. Realistically, I know I need money for groceries yet I still insist on buying that weird face spray stuff that’s supposed to make my makeup look better.

But now thanks to a recent article in the Boston Globe Magazine on why humans are driven to over consume,  at least I know why.  And may I just say, “thank goodness,” because I need something to tell my mother when she asks why I have no savings.

The article, “Why is it so hard to stop buying more stuff?” features the insights of Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, a neurosurgeon at the Mass General Hospital for Children who is investigating the link between our biological makeup and our habits of overconsumption.

Her research has shown that our brains encourage repetitive spending to get a chemical reaction that produces a feeling similar to a “short-term high”. This biological reaction was originally used to encourage us to gather the resources we needed to survive, but now it’s making us hoard a bunch of stuff we don’t need.

According to Dr. Duhaime, “No behavior happens without [the brain’s] complex and amazingly designed reward system weighing in.”

I can see this happening in my shopping decision, as well as those of my friends. My best friend, whose money goes out as fast as it comes in, normally acknowledges out loud, “I really have to start saving money!” even as she hands cash over to a Forever 21 employee who has heard that a million times before and is holding back an eye roll. Even my friend who is a budget master—and probably reads three finance books a month—has difficulty sticking to his pre-planned budget due to spur-of-the-moment purchase decisions.

When we can’t resist this intrinsic motivation to buy more stuff, we create more waste. When we finally run out of room and decide to purge some of the older, but probably still usable, things cluttering up our lives, we are adding to the massive amount of waste that already exists.

Dr. Duhaime proposes a solution that will help to redirect our buying-obsessed brains and help the environment at the same time. Instead of buying new makeup spray or Forever 21 clothes to get that high, we need to retrain our brains to get that same “high” from renovating and repurposing existing possessions to fit current needs. Maybe reupholster an old couch instead of wasting money on a new one, reuse old wood pallets to make a cute DIY bookshelf, or find some other fun project that will trigger the same “reward” system in your brain with a less wasteful outcome.

CatFor me the best course of action is just to go cold turkey on the impulse buys and spend my money only on food and bars of soap.

Of course I’m kidding. We all know that’s wildly unrealistic. But, I am going to start reusing that Dunkin Donuts hot cup that I insist on getting as a koozy for my iced coffee. Plus, I’m pretty sure that makeup spray is a complete hoax anyway, so that will have to go too.

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