Thursday, 01 December 2011 18:26
By Joe Romano,
There's no place like home.
— Dorothy, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900
Last month's article ended with the invitation to occupy your own Main Street by buying local and building a strong and living local economy. Let's begin this month by occupying that most local of all places, our minds.
You are walking through your favorite store, perhaps your fantasy store. All around you are items that you have seen or heard of before and have wanted for yourself or for your loved ones. As you walk through this store filled with items that will entertain, uplift, ease or even sustain you, you realize that you can have just about anything in the place. How do you feel? For many, this thought would be accompanied by a feeling of elation, a distinct sense of well-being. However, this is not a dream or even a fantasy. This happens every day. Yes, it is tempered by the feeling you may have had as you imagined this scenario, the nagging worry that it was all too good to be true and even, somehow, constituted a danger. This, too, happens every day. Such is the experience of a shopper with a pocket full of credit cards in almost every store they enter.
Credit cards convince people to spend money they don't have. Really, none of us should use them at all. Now you might be wondering, why would a publication put out by a store try to convince people not to spend money? The point is that a responsible business that's trying to be a good citizen of your community should urge you to spend your money in a sustainable way. When people build up debt and end up in the vicious cycle of using a credit card because they can't afford to buy an item with cash, they seldom realize that the finance charges will increase the original cost so that they are paying more than they couldn't afford in the first place. This quickly pushes people into insolvency, debt and poverty, which, in turn, destroys communities. While a big box can just close, no local business can prosper in such a community.
Why would a rational person spend this way, credit card or not? The truth is, we are not rational when we spend. Remember your fantasy store? Buying stuff is often in pursuit of the feeling we get when we do it. We stop buying when we get anxious that our resources are dwindling. Rational thought enters the equation, literally, when we do the math involved in calculating a purchase, but it does not play the lead role in the decision to buy.
According to Antoine Beschara, a neuroscientist at USC, a purchase decision is more like a dance between two parts of the brain, both of which trigger emotions, not reason. "Most of the computation is done at an emotional, unconscious level, and not at a logical one," he says. This theory was tested by Stanford University's Brian Knutson and George Lowenstein. Subjects were given an amount of cash and allowed to spend it while the two scientists mapped their brain activity. They found that when subjects were exposed to a desired object their brain's nucleus accumbens (NAcc) "lit up," indicating a craving for the item and a flood of dopamine in that region of the brain, which caused a feeling of pleasure. When the price appeared, the insula would be activated, initiating aversive feelings. People try to avoid anything that excites their insulas; this includes spending money. By looking at their brainscans, the scientists always knew what the subjects would do before they did. "If the insula's negativity exceeded the positive feelings generated by the NAcc, then the subject always chose not to buy the object." During many of the decisions, the rational cerebral cortex sat silent while the NAcc and insula duked it out.
Credit cards change the brain pattern. The risk is deferred and actually made abstract before the mind deals with it. A shopper no longer reaches into her pocket and physically lightens her pile of bills. As a result, her mind approaches a credit card purchase very differently. A deferred, abstract payment doesn't "light up" the insula, and the NAcc will usually win.
A big box store is designed to incite the NAcc and lull the insula. So the display of desirable items is calculated to get your reward centers going. After you have been subjected to the sterile air systems, the artificial lighting and the soul-sucking unnatural vibe of a big box or mall, the rewards appear to seduce you. Signs that say "Always the Lowest Price" and that offer "savings" at every turn lull the insula to stand down, and then the plastic in your pocket that defers everything but the dream gets you to the register where, if you have any fears left, you are offered 10 percent off to put it all on their credit card.
Compare that to a local vendor like GreenStar, who uses full spectrum lighting, just because customers and staff will like it better, or a small shop on The Commons, where they know your name. Compare it to a local business where the owner just might save you from yourself and steer you to the model you can afford, and you've found some more of the advantages of shopping local.
Get involved in the Local Lover's Challenge this year. Get the "Guide to Living Local" and use the coupons at many of our local businesses. And if you can do it, leave the plastic at home.
When you use cash at a local store, they don't pay the high credit card fees and you get the comfort of knowing you are spending within your means and contributing to a community that can then turn around and assist those who have no means at all.
This way, when we check back into that most local of places, our minds, what we will find is peace. And that is truly priceless.
Happy, Healthy Holidays from everyone at GreenStar.
Occupy Wall Street Part One can also be found in the November issue of GreenLeaf.