The Frontal Cortex

Shopping, Depression and Dopamine

The Christmas season is conspicuous consumption time. I recently made my annual trip to the mall, and couldn’t help but think that, somehow, the consumption gets more conspicuous every year. The antiqued jeans get more expensive, the televisions get higher definition, and the Starbucks in the food court keeps on inventing newfangled flavors to mix into my coffee. I guess that’s the genius of capitalism: it keeps on inventing new things for us to want.

But as I observed this frenzy of consumption – there was a long, long line for the new Elmo doll – I couldn’t help but muse on the neural consequences of it all. Here’s the paradox: although per-capita wealth has more than doubled in many industrialized nations over the last fifty years, levels of happiness have flat-lined. Even more dispiriting is the fact that, as countries become more prosperous, depression becomes significantly more common.

What accounts for the misery of the well-off? Two things. First of all, our neurons quickly adapt to the pleasure of high-definition television, or that fancy new car, or the softness of that cashmere sweater. Once we purchase something, we automatically start taking it for granted, and to begin yearning for something new. This phenomenon is built into the brain at a pretty basic level. Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University has spent the last few decades measuring the firing rates of dopamine neurons in the brains of monkeys as they are receiving rewards of fruit juice. His experiments observe a simple protocol: Schultz sounds a loud tone, waits for a few seconds, and then squirts a few ounces of juice into the monkey’s mouth. At first, the dopamine neurons don’t fire until the juice is delivered. The monkey doesn’t get happy until it gets the actual reward. However, once the animal learns that the tone usually predicts the imminent arrival of juice, the same neurons begin firing at the sound of the tone, instead of the sweet reward. The noise now triggers the same burst of pleasure that was once reserved for the juice; it has become a neural proxy for the expected reward. Finally, when monkeys expect juice but don’t get any (the tone wasn’t followed by a reward), their dopamine neurons fired at a very low rate, as if expressing disappointment.

What’s interesting about this system is that it’s all about anticipation. Our cells are constantly adapting to happiness, lavishing their bursts of chemical pleasure instead onto our expectations of pleasure. As soon as we enjoy the juice we begin to ignore it, and start looking for the next pleasurable thing. The economist Philip Brickman referred to this process as the “hedonic treadmill”. We are wired to always want more, no matter how much we already have.

But wait, it gets worse. Dopaminergic adaptation explains why we can’t buy ourselves happiness. But as the mental health statistics demonstrate, all our wealth doesn’t just not make us happy, it also makes us sad. Why? A big part of the problem is that conspicuous consumption I mentioned earlier. When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy–their dopamine neurons have already adapted to the luxury good–but they do manage to raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex or Casio has been devalued by the costlier item. Multiply this same phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see why people in developed countries are so depressive. Not only do their dopamine neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expectations. Many of these expectations are bound to be unfulfilled – we can’t all wear Rolexes – and so we end up feeling like a monkey that hasn’t gotten any juice.

PS. So what should we do about this? Well, obviously we can’t revert back to communism. But I tend to agree with the economist Robert Frank, who advocates a tax on conspicuous consumption, since flashy spending simply raises expectations, making the rich no happier and everyone else less happy.

Comments

  1. #1 ctw
    December 11, 2006

    caveat: I am about 99.9% ignorant in this area, so forgive the question if it’s nonsensical.

    I have recently read nick humphrey’s history of the mind, and the juice experiment reminds me of his concept of “sentition” wherein (as I understand it, probably not very well) sensation responses are redirected to a virtual body – generated and maintained in the brain – wherein sentition occurs. so, (assuming humphrey’s concept is correct) could it be that after the adaptation phase of the experiment the sound has the effect of stimulating the “juice taste sentition” without the intermediary of the actual “juice taste sensation” (perhaps somewhat analogous to “phantom” sensations)?

    whether my question is meaningful or not, I’m curious what the community reaction to humphrey’s ideas is? and assuming they are correct, is it reasonable to assume that the monkey’s brain has evolved enough of the way to the state of ours so that it would have something close to our “sentition” capability.

    thanks for your indulgence.

    – charles

  2. #2 EANMDPHD
    December 11, 2006

    But we can all drink STARBUCKS … and we keep getting our STARBUCKS which has hit on a great consumption ploy: The richest of the rich cannot buy a better STARBUCKS drink than anyone else willing to spend a few hours of their disposal income. I can afford to purchase the same drink that Oprah, Tiger, Bill Gates, or whoever might purchase… STARBUCKS, the great equalizer! A new term: common conspicuous consumption!
    But wait, I can have it my way: personalized common conspicuous consumption! — which turns out to be PC conspicuous consumption!

    “”When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy–their dopamine neurons have already adapted to the luxury good–but they do manage to raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex or Casio has been devalued by the costlier item. Multiply this same phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see why people in developed countries are so depressive. Not only do their dopamine neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expectations. Many of these expectations are bound to be unfulfilled – we can’t all wear Rolexes – and so we end up feeling like a monkey that hasn’t gotten any juice.””

  3. #3 MattXIV
    December 11, 2006

    I don’t think your last point about status goods follows from the previous point about dopaminergic adaptation. People who are wearing Cassios and Timexes have no basis for expecting to be able to afford a Rolex because someone else has one, whereas the monkey has a basis for expecting the juice because the whistle. A comparable situation for a human would be if someone gave them what they thought was a Rolex, but it turned out to be a knock-off. Although they are objectively better off by having a fake watch vs no watch, they’ll be upset because they expected to have a Rolex going forward. A more practical example would be the reaction of employees who had been recieving a 5% raise each year at their jobs and one year only recieved a 2% raise. They’ll be upset because their comparison is their expected selves with a 5% raise vs their actual selves with a 2% raise, not some other party.

    The “hedonic treadmill” deals with intertemporal comparisons of an individual’s mood and proposes that mood returns to a baseline that is insensitive to material conditions after they are factored into expectations. Hence, over the long term where outcomes average out to be close to expectations the “hedonic treadmill” means that the level of happiness will remain constant, so it does not suggest that increased wealth would cause increased rates of depression.

    However, if you turn that proposition around ask if increased rates of depression (which would be a proxy for a lower average baseline happiness in a society) would make a society become more materially wealthy, the “hedonic treadmill” suggest that it may. Since it takes more gains to sustain the same average level of happiness in a society with a lower baseline as one with a higher one, people in the lower baseline society may work harder since they’re less content with their “expected” outcome.

  4. #4 Jonah
    December 11, 2006

    Hi Matt, and thanks for your very interesting comment. I’m especially intrigued by your last hypothesis: is the unhappiness of wealthy nations really an engine for economic development? Do we really try to assuage our emotional void with trips to the mall? Provocative idea…Karl Marx would have probably agreed.Of course, you still have to explain why these societies are more depressive to begin with.

    As for your criticism of my dopaminergic model…I’m certainly guilty of extrapolating big societal consequences from a simple neural model. However, one thing that Schultz and others have discovered about the dopaminergic system is that 1) it adapts very quickly to rewards and 2) it then looks for new sensations that predict future rewards. In other words, the system is designed to be both insatiable and anticipatory. Of course, nobody has experimented with monkeys and luxury goods, and seen whether status can affect dopamine release(ie, does knowing that some other monkey is getting more juice than you make your neurons less satisfied by your own juice reward…) But I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that our dopaminergic expectations of rewards are drawn, in large part, from what we see around us. If others are getting lots of juice, or wearing Rolexes, are driving BMW’s, then that is what we begin to expect. When reality fails to meet our expectations – and that’s inevitable – we end up feeling disappointed and depressed. The old cliche is correct: the secret of happiness is having low expectations.

  5. #5 tirta
    December 11, 2006

    “Multiply this same phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see why people in developed countries are so depressive.”

    Two questions. First, I’m not sure that people in developed countries are depressive to the extent you implied (I’m from one, Indonesia) — but perhaps I’m wrong. Any empirical data on this? Second, even if they are depressive, I’m not again sure to what extent it’s the result of envying the conspicuous consumption of their fellow beings elsewhere.

  6. #6 MattXIV
    December 11, 2006

    Thanks for the response. I agree that expectations are shaped by observation of others, but the how depends on the subjective interpretation of the person forming expectations and the actual impact on mood could vary highly depending on how the information is interpreted. If one of my co-workers with the same type of position gets a new BMW, I’ll likely be upset, since my expectation was that I was being compensated comparably to him or her, and I can’t afford one. However, if my boss gets a new BMW, it is good news on the expectations front – I know he makes more than I do, and there is a good chance I may be taking over his job sometime in the future if he’s promoted or retires, so reality turns out to be better than my expectations since I’m one promotion away from being able to afford a BMW. This doesn’t preclude me from envying my boss either, so the relationship between luxury goods, mood, and expectations isn’t as simple as increases in luxury goods driving excessive expectations.

  7. #7 tirta
    December 11, 2006

    Converging roughly with Matt’s last response above, I guess self-identification is a very important mediator — particularly for cross-cultural context. As long as the Indonesian people, for example, don’t identify themselves with the conspicuous consumers elsewhere (and with their own, more economically able countrymen), their observation wouldn’t result in expectation.

  8. #8 Lizzie
    December 11, 2006

    Jonah asked: “does knowing that some other monkey is getting more juice than you make your neurons less satisfied by your own juice reward?

    Jonah, you might be interested in the Frans de Waal experiment below:

    …he had pairs of capuchin monkeys perform simple tasks in their cages. For successfully completing each task they would get a reward, sometimes a slice of cucumber, sometimes a grape. All the monkeys would work for and eat the cucumber slices, but they preferred grapes. If one monkey kept getting paid in cucumber and it could see that its partner in the next cage was getting grapes, it would get mad. After a while the monkey would refuse to eat or throw the cucumber right out of the cage…..

    Whereas initially the cucumber had provided a sufficient reward, once the grape was given to others in view, the cucumbers became worthless and even angering. ….. Seems to support your point of view here….

  9. #9 Jonah
    December 12, 2006

    Thanks for sharing that interesting study, Lizzie. I really appreciate it. I think it’s clear that humans are social animals and, like all social animals, are sensitive to their status within the group. Now, free-market capitalism is a dual edged sword in this sense. On the one hand, we are constantly confronted with reminders that we don’t own the fanciest watch, or TV, or car. Our expecations are always being racheted up, and new kinds of desire are drilled into us by advertisements. On the other hand, it would be silly to assume that this is the only kind of status there is. Perhaps you don’t care about driving a luxury car, and want to spend your money instead on the new Playstation, or a fancy motorcycle, or some first edition book of poetry. In other words, our society has invented many new kinds of status hierarchies. If you can’t be a successful football player in high school, you can still lead a meaningful existence as the head of the chess team, or as an acolyte of Dungeons and Dragons. So yes, self-identification is a crucial part of this process, and it helps mediate our appetite for conspicuous consumption. That said, high school jocks still get more girls and attention than chess players Most people would still rather have a Rolex than an expensive book of poetry. So while there are many kinds of status, some kinds of status are more important than others. This varies from culture to culture, and I was simply pointing out that our particular cultural emphasis on matieral possesions as an indicator of status is not particularly healthy.

  10. #10 EANMDPHD
    December 12, 2006

    I believe one reason for the success of Starbucks is that they make it possible for anyone willing to spend a few hours’ worth of their disposable income purchasing a cup of coffee to have the exact same experience as the richest people in the world. This is commonized conspicuous consumption. But it gets better as one can personalize it… the personalized commonized conspicuous consumption: PC conspicuous consumption.

  11. #11 Terry
    December 13, 2006

    Here’s an interesting article written by
    an economist and happiness researcher:

    http://www.utilitarianism.com/happiness/

    My own feeling is that television has also greatly
    impacted (in a negative way) happiness levels in
    these ways:

    1. Social comparisons. It used to be (before TV),
    that people only compared themselves to the people
    with whom they actually interacted with on a day
    to day basis. Now we are comparing ourselves with
    the beautiful, rich, exciting and glamorous people
    we watch every evening on the tube.

    2. Anomie. Happiness research has found that personal
    connections (family, friends, co-workers, etc) to be
    essential to happiness. But as Robert Putnam (“Bowling
    Alone”) found, the over 4 hrs a day of TV watching by
    Americans, has seriously cut into time that would
    otherwise be spend creating human connections.

    My two cents worth…

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  43. #43 Girlfriend
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    Interesting take on this subject. I will bookmark this site for future reference.

  44. #44 Treadmills sale
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    Interesting post. I don’t think many people realize that could be so complex. I heard about The Hedonic Treadmill Theory that shows people are greedy in other way.

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