This article is part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” campaign, an ongoing project spotlighting the world’s waste crisis and how we can begin to solve it.
My first job in Manhattan was on Fifth Avenue. How lucky I was, I thought, to be in the center of this dream city. Most of all, though, I loved the clothing shops. All I had to do was wrap up the day’s work and step outside, and everything was there. J. Crew, Anthropologie, Loft, Banana Republic ...
It’s hard to resist those glitzy displays showing off an array of drapey wool coats perfect for midfall, dresses to match any personality you’re in the mood to show, and cute socks with fox faces printed on them ― especially when the clothes are super affordable, as they are at so many hip retailers these days. I found myself buying too many clothes all at once, and I wasn’t the only one: Americans as a whole tend to overshop.
There are many reasons why we buy too much clothing, and affordable pricing is one. But new research also points to other factors that can sneakily influence our shopping behaviors ― and we actually have more control over those causes.
Neuroscience research shows that being mentally fatigued can make you an impulsive shopper. Just a day at work can burn out our limited resources of self-control, and nearly turn off the brain areas in charge of evaluating decisions.
In other words, the person who walks out of the office and into the shops downstairs is simply not your best version of yourself, and probably shouldn’t be making decisions involving money and future planning.
A team of researchers recently set up a situation in the lab resembling the everyday experience of consumers, in order to examine the effects of normal daily fatigue on making decisions that require some degree of self-control. The researchers wanted to see what fatigue does to the decision-evaluating part of the brain, that wise judge inside your head that says no to beer with friends so you can save money for a bike.
“The neural bases of how we make the decision between consuming and saving are somewhat known,” said neuroscientist Bastien Blain, author of the study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in June. “For example, to make a decision between an immediate monetary reward, say, $10 now, and a bigger but delayed one, say, $100 in one year, requires the brain to attribute a value to each option. If we temporarily inhibit a particular brain area, people become more likely to choose the immediate reward option.”
When this brain area ― called the lateral prefrontal cortex or LPFC ― isn’t working at full speed, we become more irrational with our choices. Blain and his colleagues had 35 study volunteers carry out assignments involving working memory and task switching, both of which heavily engage the LPFC. The team then measured whether tiring the LPFC like that would make the participants more impulsive right after.
There’s an idea in psychology, which you might have experienced firsthand in daily life, that willpower is limited (if you are even lucky to have any at all, that is). In the lab, psychologists have shown the limits of self-control: people who resist the temptation of fresh-baked cookies later give up prematurely on solving difficult puzzles. Those who are made to think hard or make too many decisions in a short time are not able to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as their peers with fresh minds. The idea is that the effects of using self-control in one task carries over to other tasks and leads to what psychologists call ego depletion.
In Blain’s study, people didn’t show ego depletion after 15 minutes of heavy cognitive work, so the team decided to go beyond the usual short time frame used in similar studies and instead mimic a typical workday. The participants who performed the difficult version of the tasks became more impulsive by the end of the day. The group that performed easy versions of the tasks or enjoyed some breaks during the six-hour episode didn’t show increased impulsivity.
Six hours, by the way, was considered a typical workday because the study was done in France. The consequences could be even worse for people in the U.S., where typical work hours are 8 hours a day or more.
Using fMRI scans that measured the activity of brain regions, the researchers found the participants’ impulsivity was linked with decreased activity in the LPFC.
“Our findings demonstrate a concept of focused neural fatigue that might be naturally induced in real-life situations and have important repercussions on economic decisions,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
Back at my first job, situated strategically in the center of a shoppers’ haven, I was exposed to the lure of beautiful pieces of clothing every single day. Even on a shoestring budget of an intern, I was always able to afford a cute top or a stylish pair of shoes — and that was thanks to the glut of cheap, trendy clothes that retailers churn out at a breakneck pace.
This so-called fast fashion trend has made clothes seem more disposable. As a result, the fashion industry has become one of the most polluting forces in the environment, and our millions of tons of textile waste have already become a significant chunk of landfills covering the world.
I asked Blain whether his findings have made him change his own behaviors. “Yes, definitely,” he said. “Now I always wait for the morning or the weekend to make purchasing decisions. I also try to resist an impulse after a day of work, thinking that my desire is purely transient and will be different after a night of rest.”
There is some relief in learning that some of our regretful purchasing decisions may have been caused by unavoidable mental fatigue, and not a fundamental personality flaw.
And the solution seems pretty simple. Take breaks during the workday to avoid the accumulation of fatigue. Or, like Blain, just don’t shop right after work and wait for the weekend or mornings instead. Always try to wait a few days to check whether the desire to buy something is fleeting ― is your decision based on your particular state of mind or is it objectively a good idea? When feeling an impulse to buy something, remember that you ― and your brain ― really may need to sleep on it.
Mental fatigue is still only one factor behind a mindless shopping episode. Blain’s study showed that after a six-hour task, people became just 10 percent more impulsive. Obviously there are many more variables constantly influencing how we decide to buy.
Mood is one. It’s been shown that listening to pleasant music increases the normal activity of the brain areas involved in valuation, and therefore makes the brain more likely to like what it subsequently sees. So maybe take your headphones out at the store.
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