Take a moment to look around your house and you’ll probably find lots of products that you never really use.
The gadgets in your kitchen cupboards, the exercise equipment in your garage, the unworn clothes in your wardrobe: I’m guessing that, if pushed, you could easily explain why they aren’t things you use, but what might have caused you to buy them in the first place?
The fact of the matter is that your unconscious mind is often driving your behaviour as a consumer: under the influence of basic evolutionary drives and the tactics of retailers, it’s easy to feel compelled to buy something that later doesn’t find a place in your life.
If you’re reading this thinking that you aren’t susceptible to impulse buying, it’s possible you’re correct. However, it’s also quite likely that you’re kidding yourself. Like a gambler who only remembers the wins, the feel-good buzz that comes from spontaneously buying something that turns out to be a great buy leaves a much greater impression in our memories than the product that was bought in the same way but never used.
So what’s going on inside your head and what can you do to make fewer purchases that will turn out to be wasteful?
The simplest explanation is that some people just derive an enormous amount of pleasure from acquiring something new. The act of buying is an act of empowerment that may be felt all too rarely in other aspects of life.
As children, people are often conditioned by their parents to feel good about something new being handed to them. You only need to go back a couple of generations to understand why this was an understandable sentiment. However, even in these tougher economic times, we can still indulge ourselves (or our kids) far more often and novelty becomes the goal, rather than the signal of something of value being placed in your hands.
Stores have learned that we’re very susceptible to the loss aversion switch. Loss aversion, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, describes our innate concern to avoid feeling bad in the future.
Normally this would affect our purchase decisions by causing us to prevaricate over a purchase: “Might I feel bad if I buy this and don’t have the money for something else?” But add in a discount that we’re told or we assume won’t last forever and our unconscious focus switches to the fear we’ll miss out on the deal.
Most shopping is too arduous and time consuming to carry out with conscious attention. Imagine if every item you bought was cross-referenced with every other product available in the market: you would need to look at price, product composition, reviews and maybe even the quality of customer service supporting it. Even if you could find all the information in comparable formats it would take hours to buy one item.
So instead we use heuristics – unconsciously held rules of thumb – that help us make quick decisions that we’ve learned generally work out well.
Retailers take advantage of this by packaging up products as bulk buys, or they include ‘free’ extras. We get the impression that it must be good value, and we go with this feeling rather than researching any further.
A susceptibility to ‘value’ and apparent discounts isn’t just down to the loss aversion switch; many of us have an innate desire to save. Retailers and manufacturers play on this by telling us how much money we could save by buying and using their product.
Thousands of years ago, knowing that it was important to store up food and wood for the winter would be the difference between life and death. These days most of us no longer need to worry about our day-to-day survival, but the evolutionary drive remains. In short, we find it hard to resist the idea that we’ll be saving money or time.
For better and worse, we routinely delude ourselves. We believe we’re better than average looking, better than average drivers, better than average parents… clearly, we can’t all be right.
Objectivity is an elusive virtue. Rather than look back and reflect on our past actions with anything approaching a balanced scorecard, we look to the future with an idealised view of what it might be like.
Rather than acknowledge the fact that we haven’t done a stroke of exercise in the past five years, we like the idea that buying the new Ab-Toner-9000 will turn us into someone who does have the motivation to crunch his stomach 200 times a day.
Each of these influences is worth reflecting on next time you go shopping. If it saves you bringing one item into your home that will clutter up your house or be a constant reminder of someone you’re not it will have been worthwhile! And, if you’re the parent of a child, I’d heartily recommend considering what impression you might be giving him or her about ‘consuming novelty’ when you hand them something new.