3Shopping Gets You High
This holiday season, like every one before it, will feature multiple stories of a stampede at a department store that was featuring "door buster" sales the morning after Thanksgiving. Hundreds of crazy people lining up in the predawn hours, not to buy something rare or even valuable, but just the same shit they could have bought the day before. The act of shopping itself, the high they get from it, is what's they're there for. And stores take advantage by turning it into an adrenaline-charged event.
We love to mock people like this, the rabid shoppers and women addicted to buying shoes, but let us ask you guys something: do you play video games? Tell us you don't have multiple games in your collection that you've bought but never played. Surveys show more than 10% of you have games you never even took out of the shrinkwrap. There are entire websites devoted to helping gamers work through their backlog of purchased but unplayed games. Why? Because gamers simply like buying games, often more than actually playing them.
And they like bitching about games on the Internet most of all.
Look around your place. How many of your DVD's have you actually watched? Do you own that 19-season Simpsons box set? Are you actually going to sit down and watch all 110 discs, or did it just seem like a cool thing to buy, for the sake of buying it?
Why It Works:
Dopamine. Sweet, sweet dopamine. This is the stuff your brain produces in response to sex, recreational drugs, or a really good cheeseburger. It serves all kinds of functions related to behavior, cognition, movement, and other important things like keeping the drool inside your mouth and lactating. Can't forget lactating.
More importantly, dopamine is also the gatekeeper to rewards and punishments, a system it uses to motivate us to, among other things, explore, learn and acquire new stuff.
So not only does shopping satisfy the "new stuff" need but research shows the feeling intensifies when you visit a new store or go out of town -- for example, shoppers are more likely to buy something expensive and stupid when they're on vacation. Not for the expensive and stupid thing, remember, but for our dark master, dopamine.
Otherwise known as "the only reason life isn't constantly horrible".
There is a way to beat the system; it's actually the anticipation of the purchase that gives you the fix, not the purchase itself (though simple window shopping isn't enough). Though if you can figure out how to truthfully anticipate buying something without actually buying it, drop us a line at You-Are-In-The-Matrix-And-Are-The-One@cracked.com.
2You Can't Comprehend Numbers
The headlines after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad mostly focused on how inexpensive it was. Only $499! That's a good price for a ...
... wait -- for a what? The thing didn't exist before that day. That's actually more than a netbook costs. It's more than a phone. So how did we decide $499 was a good price? Good question.
Also, why are we still doing the $_99 thing on our prices? Instead of just saying "It'll be five hundred dollars" we still frame it as $499, even when addressing a crowd full of educated, savvy consumers? As if we're too stupid to realize $499 is only one dollar less? We've surely figured that out by now, right?
Humans are really bad with numbers, and it manifests itself in a whole bunch of different ways in the world of retail. It's the reason you will patiently wait for a sweater to go on sale so you can get it for 10% off, then buy it with a credit card and wind up paying more than the original retail price once the interest is figured in. It's the reason we'll take a longer mortgage on a house in exchange for a lower payment, because we can't wrap our minds around the idea that the longer mortgage means over time we're going to pay $50,000 more for the exact same house.
By the time you actually own this place the roof will have burrito stains.
So when it comes to setting prices, sellers know that it's mostly up to them to frame for us what the price should be. In the biz they call this price anchoring. So you'll go to Best Buy and see a new TV that's 25% off of the "Regular Price" or "MSRP." Then you Google around and find that what they're claiming is the "regular price" is in fact not the price, anywhere. You're saving 25 percent over an imaginary number.
As for the iPad's pleasant surprise price of $499? That was due to rumors leading up to the launch that it would cost $1,000 from sources like Apple Insider. Then in the unveiling, Jobs was sure to mention how everyone expects the device to cost a thousand bucks. He plants that idea in your mind and suddenly $499 looks like a steal.
Why It Works:
Picture three golf balls, lined up in a row.
Now picture a box full of 4,258 golf balls.
Not only can you not see in your head what 4,258 balls looks like, you probably don't even have a ballpark idea of how big of a box it would take. Our brains just aren't equipped to handle numbers instinctively. From an evolution standpoint, it's no surprise -- complex numbering systems weren't even invented until 5,000 or so years ago and sexual selection doesn't exactly favor math geeks, if you know what we mean.
The $499 vs $500 thing is a perfect example. Even though you know on a conscious level that there is no important difference between those two numbers, your perception of them is radically different because your brain just is not very good at equating those digits with a real world quantity. One study suggests it's because your brain is reading the price like it reads everything else: left to right. It puts a higher value on the first thing we see so no matter what comes after that, you still wind up relating it to the first digit. No matter how much you tell yourself otherwise, $499 still registers as "in the $400 range" rather than "essentially $500."
Or "enough Ramen to get you through graduate school".
But to really drive home how much we suck at math, this study found that the harder we try to keep track of what we spend, the worse we are at it. Budget-conscious shoppers who tried to track every penny in their cart wound up wrong by up to 20%. Why? Because the .99 thing makes doing the math almost impossible. Quick, how much does it cost for three cans of beer at $2.00 each? Six bucks, you knew that instantly. How much does it cost for three cans at $1.99 each? Most of you have to get out a pen and paper.
Strangely, the shoppers who weren't watching their budget actually did a better job of estimating their bill. They tended to just shrug and round the price up instead of doing the precise math and getting confused. Yes, they became better at math by admitting they sucked at math.
Hooray for ignorance!