part 1, 2

Scott Rick near the Apple Store on trendy Walnut Street in Pittsburgh. - Photo by Chris Julin

It's a weekday morning in Pittsburgh, and sun is streaming through the windows of the Apple Store on Walnut Street. Scott Rick stands in front of a wall full of computer monitors. He eyes a 30-inch flat screen that costs nearly $2000.

"I'm imagining how great it would be to have a giant screen like this," he says. "I'm really craving one. And if I leave, it's like I'm losing the screen. It's painful to walk away from all the happiness that a big screen offers."

But Rick knows, on one level at least, that buying a huge computer monitor won't really make him happy.

"The research says no, not for more than a week or so," he says, casting another look at the monitor. "But it's hard to believe that when you're staring at all those inches."

Scott Rick knows what the research says about shopping because he does some of it. He just got his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University, and now he's a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. He's in a growing field called neuroeconomics. It's part economics and part psychology. Rick is particularly interested in how people make choices, like whether to buy something.

"I try to understand what makes people give in to their desires," Rick says.

New research like Scott Rick's is displacing some traditional ideas about economics that reach back more than 200 years, back to Adam Smith and the other founders of modern economics. According to classical economic theory, we are perfectly rational when we make economic decisions such as whether to buy a nifty new pair of shoes. Classical economics pays no attention to how we feel when we shop.

Rick says a human who operates by the rules of classical economics asks the same question before each purchase: What else can I get with this money?

If we calculate that the pleasure we get from buying a pair of shoes today outweighs the pleasure we could get some other day by buying something else with that money, we buy the shoes.

"That's the way it should be according to economics," Rick says. "Pleasure today, pleasure tomorrow."

But that's not how real people act. In recent years, researchers like Scott Rick have shown that people use their emotions as well as their math skills when they decide what to buy.

"You have to in order to make it," Rick says. "Otherwise you'd be standing, staring at the Cheerios box for hours trying to think what else you could use the four dollars on."

Buying with your gut

Recent research seems to show that emotions play a role every time you choose to buy something - or choose not to buy something. To see an example, we went to another of Scott Rick's favorite stores. It's a card and gift shop that's full of row upon row of goofy tchotchkes, from soap in the shape of the president's head to Pittsburgh Steelers license plate holders. In a crowded aisle in the back of the store Rick picks up a stuffed Homer Simpson in a bath towel and slippers.

"That's great," he says with a grin. "It's very cute. I'd love to have that."

The brain scan on the left shows an active insula - a pain center - of a research subject considering a price. On the right is a brain scan of a research subject looking at a desirable product. The nucleus accumbens - a pleasure center the brain - is active. - Courtesy of Scott Rick

According to Rick's research, his nucleus accumbens is active right now. He and his fellow researchers examined brain scans of people who were playing a shopping game. The shoppers looked at pictures of designer chocolates and books and computer gizmos, and their nucleus accumbens lit up on the brain scan. That's the same part of the brain that lights up when people eat something delicious or shoot up heroin. It's a small structure deep within the brain, and it's one of the brain's pleasure centers.

And Scott Rick is feeling pleasure at the thought of owning a stuffed Homer Simpson. Until he turns it over and sees a $28 price tag.

"That seems high for Homer in a bath towel," he says. "I'll put that back."

Now a different part of his brain has kicked in, according to his research. It's called the insula. It's another small region deep in the brain, but the insula is one of the brain's pain centers. The researchers found this region lit up on brain scans when people were faced with a price that was higher than they were willing to pay.

So, in a sense, it's pleasant to shop, but it hurts to pay.

"If it doesn't hurt so much, and if I think I'll like it, then I'll buy it," Rick says. "But if it really hurts, then that's sort of a signal that we give ourselves not to buy."

How much does it hurt?

The researchers found that not everyone feels the same amount of pain when they reach for the wallet. And, of course, people get varying amounts of pleasure from shopping. We're all hardwired a little differently.

On one end of the scale you find people who feel quite a bit of pain when they buy things. The researchers call them tightwads. On the other end of the scale you find people who don't feel much pain at the cash register. These people tend to enjoy shopping and buying. And they have a fancy name, too. The researchers labeled these shoppers spendthrifts.

Scott Rick and his fellow researchers developed a spendthrift-tightwad survey. It puts people on a continuum. Thousands of people have filled out the survey online. Surprisingly, perhaps, tightwads outnumber spendthrifts. But most people, about 60 percent, were in the middle, feeling fairly content with what they spend. That means 40 percent of the respondents were tightwads or spendthrifts, people who feel like they spend less, or spend more, than they ought to - people who are unhappy with their own spending habits.

Everyone has a little buyer's remorse now and then, but extreme tightwads and spendthrifts have lots of it. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who worked with Scott Rick on the spendthrift-tightwad scale, explains it like this: Imagine a tightwad and a spendthrift are walking through a store and they spot a great shirt.

"The spendthrift will see the shirt and buy it," Loewenstein says. "And maybe they shouldn't have bought it because they're already in debt."

The tightwad, on the other hand, doesn't buy the shirt.

"And probably they should buy it," Loewenstein says. "They don't have any credit card debt, they have plenty of savings, and probably their wardrobe isn't very attractive because they're under-dressing."

The tightwad believes it's a good idea to buy the shirt but just can't do it.

"It's just too painful to part with the money," he says.

Continue to part 2

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