For decades, scientists have attempted to understand why the human body is rewarded for certain acts which don’t relate to our physical well-being. In the case of our “need” for in-demand products, the key to unlocking the mystery may center on how the brain reacts to “hype.”
Whether it’s satiating the desires one holds near to their heart, like purchasing a new pair of shoes, or something less tangible, like glimpsing the latest Apple device, the call and response of consumer satisfaction isn’t simply a symptom of consumerism. Instead, it’s something that’s hardwired into our brains, and has been since the time men and women first began roaming this planet.
Human basic needs were first categorised in an intellectual setting with the publishing of Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” in Psychological Review. In it, Maslow proposed that every “healthy” adult requires that their needs be met in a specific order: physiological, safety, long and belonging, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence. These were realized in the form of a pyramid, which suggests things like oxygen, food, sex and sleep need to be taken care of first, while other, less vital things come afterwards. Once the body understands what it needs to survive, the theory states that person is then free to move on to the next step towards “enlightenment.” Although, as the saying goes, so often “life gets in the way.”
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In a contemporary context, professional finance writer and speaker Luke Landes ties this psychology theory to budgeting as well. According to him, physiological needs (including food, water, clothing and shelter) should be accounted for first in a person’s budget. Next, safety needs like insurance, expenses related to your work, and utilities must be met. Then comes all the fun stuff. In a perfect world, Landes believes that a person with a sensible budget should spend 50% of their after-tax expenses on “needs,” 30% on “wants,” and 20% on “savings.” That 30% “want” window is why an entity like Highsnobiety exists.
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While consumerism is certainly alive and well in the 21st Century, there’s evidence that people are starting to favor “access as opposed to ownership.” As WIRED recently noted, juggernauts like Apple and Amazon have seen only modest gains in recent years thanks to the ease with which things can be obtained — like streaming films or renting textbooks — all of which have eliminated the need to buy.
“Amazon has made streaming media so easy that the practical incentive to buy diminishes,” WIRED notes. “Renting or buying digital video from Amazon, for example, never has to involve a download. You never really have to ‘have’ it. It simply streams from Amazon’s cloud to apps, browsers, and over-the-top internet TV boxes.”
For centuries, if a person wanted something, they either bought it, stole it, or borrowed it. Today, that is no longer the case. But how has this lessening of ownership affected humans on a physical level?
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When a person obtains something they really want it releases dopamine in the brain, which is critical to a person’s mental health, allowing for pleasure and satisfaction to manifest in a familiar warm feeling. Dopamine is chemically released when we experience something new, exciting or challenging, and for many people, shopping is all those things wrapped up in one experience. If we take it a step further, when it comes to acquiring “hype” items like a pair of YEEZY sneakers or limited-edition offerings from Supreme — both of which embody the antithesis of Amazon and Netflix’s streaming strategies — there’s actually far more at play than simple ego. Here the dopamine rush is magnified several times, as the experience is both new and exciting (and very often challenging too).
“This sneaker right here is like having tickets to El Classico with seats in the first row behind the goal.”
As The Wall Street Journal reports, “MRI studies of brain activity suggest that surges in dopamine levels are linked much more with anticipation of an experience than the actual experience.”
As we know, the only way an item becomes truly “hyped up” is through anticipation. The more in-demand a product is, the harder it is to own. There are even new jobs being created like “professional line waiters” who are adding an extra wrinkle to the already billion dollar resale market.
Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta has became one the field’s leading researchers when it comes to explaining the physical effects that anticipation can have on the human body. In one study, patients reclined in an MRI scanner while a tube trickled drops of water or sweet Kool-Aid into their mouths. Sometimes the Kool-Aid drops were in a predictable pattern, while other studies used random drops. Notably, when the Kool-Aid was predictable the brain showed little increased activity. But the scans showed a high level of activity when the Kool-Aid was given at random.
Dr. Brian Knutson of Stanford is another individual examining how the brain delivers pleasure, and specifically what it is about certain items that causes those triggers. In Knutson’s experiment subjects were rolled inside the scanner, where they could see a small video screen that displayed products available for purchase — everything from DVDs, to books, games and small electronic devices. “After a short interval the price of the product was displayed, and subjects could choose whether to make a purchase,” the study examined. “The scanner was activated during three distinct times: product presentation, price display and decision.” For some, when they looked at the price, the pleasure centers in the brain which release dopamine were often interrupted by the areas in the brain responsible for unpleasant emotions and the anticipation of loss. But, for other items, the higher price tags had no impact on the pleasure their bodies received from pondering a bold purchase.
In a study by Harvard-educated psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, the suggestion is that experiences bring people more happiness than possessions. As The Atlantic noted, “They looked specifically at anticipation as a driver of that happiness; whether the benefit of spending money on an experience accrues before the purchase has been made, in addition to after. And, yes, it does. Essentially, when you can’t live in a moment, they say, it’s best to live in anticipation of an experience. Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.”
While material possessions are often viewed as fleeting sources of happiness, the phenomenon of “hype” does have an underlying factor that may be overlooked by some researchers. The question of how a person will be able to purchase the items could potentially bridge the gap between the aforementioned Killingsworth study which relies on experience, with Dr. Bearns’ study on anticipation. When combined, it’s the perfect storm of perceived happiness for those willing to commit themselves to acquiring a hard-to-own item.
When it rains during a beach vacation, as Cornell doctoral candidate Amit Kumar said, “People will say, well, you know, we stayed in and we played board games and it was a great family bonding experience or something.” That’s the power of experience shining through.
Even if the experience was negative in the precise moment — like spending hours or even days waiting in line for a sneaker — it becomes positive after the fact with the benefit of retrospect. As we reported last year, when two of the people at the front of the line for the release of the Nike Dunk High Premium SB “Diamond” were asked to describe their 48-hour-plus ordeal to acquire the shoes, they said, “This sneaker right here is like having tickets to El Classico (Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) with seats in the first row behind the goal.” Would they have felt so strongly had they simply been able to waltz into their local Foot Locker at 2pm and pick one up instantly? It’s unlikely.
Dopamine has been referred to as “The Kim Kardashian” of neurotransmitters, due to the fact it’s a much-buzzed about term in a variety of different fields. In fact, the same people who criticize purveyors of hype for their supposed lack of judgement or common sense should also have the spotlight turned on their own desires, even if they fall in line with more cultural norms like taking a vacation or buying a house. For some, it’s all about the race. For others, it’s all about the finish line. No matter where a person falls on that spectrum, we’re all running towards something that’s temporary.