Slightly off topic, but just to plug Jonah Lehrer’s new book, How We Decide, a look at the inner mechanics of our decision-making process; as it happens, I’ve blurbed the book — but lest you suspect that is purely some corrupt log-rolling at work, I don’t actually know the author.
One of my favorite bits involves some recent neuroscience work on the nucleus accumbens, “a crucial part of the dopamine reward pathway,” says Lehrer; in other words, if you own one of something and acquire another, the NAcc won’t see much activation. But getting that first thing — something one craves — well then it’s on fire.
Lehrer argues that “retail stores manipulate this cortical setup.” (whether this is because they have neuro-scientists on staff, or simply rely on inherited retailing wisdom, is another question). “Just look at the interior of a Costco warehouse,” he writes. “It’s no accident that the most coveted items are put in the most prominent places. A row of high-definition televisions line the entrance. The fancy jewelry, Rolex watches, iPods, and other luxury items are conspicuously placed along the corridors with the heaviest foot traffic. And then there are the free samples of food, literally distributed throughout the store. The goal of Costco is to constantly prime the pleasure centers of hte brain, to keep us lusting after the things we don’t need. Even though you probably won’t buy the Rolex, just looking at the fancy watch makes you more likely to buy something else, since the desired item activates the NAcc.”
A-ha! I always wondered why I felt so oddly weak in front of the 48-packs of California pitted olives. I was still lusting after that 64-inch Sony Bravia! It always did strike me as a bit of a disconnect why there were laptops and such (which I never buy) directly at the entrance; as if to suggest, well, I’m really here to buy bulk garbage bags but maybe what I actually want is… a Dell notebook. Or I suspected they put that stuff before the staples because you might not otherwise reach that area (like the way supermarkets stuff milk at the very end of the store), or your cart would already be filled with tube socks and toothpaste, with no room (actual or psychic) for luxury goods. But I like Lehrer’s theory that it’s like Costco’s version of a kind of mental stimulus package, a bit of Keynesian pump-priming — I develop an instant crush on the TV, and this unrequited romance makes me fall harder for 55-gallon-drum of Chi-Chi’s salsa ten aisles further on (and that also seems like such a more virtuous and rational purchase to boot).
In any case, the book is filled with similarly fascinating excursions into the human decision-making apparatus, in all its imprecise glory.