NEW YORK — Chennel King, a nurse from Norwalk, Conn., went Christmas shopping the other day with a new holiday companion: a budget.
Despite a tough economic situation — her husband was laid off almost a year ago — King didn't want to disappoint her five children. So she still went to a mall in suburban New Jersey, but with a limit of $200 per child.
Plenty of Americans are having to hold back this year as the lure of flashy ads, tempting bargains and family expectations clashes with the realities of the economy. Experts in consumer behavior say that situation can strain the brain.
Scientists say we are to some extent wired for shopping. It seems to tap into circuits that originally spurred our ancestors to go out looking for food, says Brian Knutson, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University.
"We are built to forage, just like rats, just like dogs," Knutson said. So we have brain circuitry that "compels us to go out there ... to get good stuff, even if we don't know what that good stuff is."
Brain scanning in his lab shows deep brain circuitry called the nucleus accumbens goes to work when people are considering products and prices. When brain cells in that area release a chemical called dopamine, people are motivated to take action, he said.
So the very prospect of shopping — maybe brought on by ads and other marketing tools — may arouse that circuitry and put us in a mood to hit the stores, and then to keep on shopping, he said. "You feel good... It's exciting," Knutson said.
Other circuitry reacts to excessively high prices and dampens the enthusiasm to buy, he said. The competing signals — buy and don't-buy — are passed to the front of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex, where a decision about whether to purchase something is apparently made, he said.
But how does that decision get made when money is tight? Knutson said he hasn't studied that question. But he notes that yet another area of the brain, called the cingulate cortex, responds to conflicts like wanting to buy something that costs too much. So maybe it pitches in when a shopper feels restrained by a budget.
King, the recent mall shopper, isn't sure how much she spent last year but it was a lot, with new bedroom sets, a camera for one daughter, a camcorder for one son, and four PlayStations. This year, she turned down the requests of her oldest two for an iPad. But she didn't consider cutting out Christmas totally. And she's mindful to buy the same number of presents for each kid.
"You only live once," King said. "If it's something my kids really want, I try to get it at the lowest possible price."
From what experts recommend about holding down spending, King was smart to set a budget ahead of time, but she probably made her task tougher by going to a mall.
When you're surrounded by attractive goods and crowds of people buying them, "natural human desires can trigger off intense cravings" to buy, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "Not spending when you're tempted to spend is exhausting and miserable," like not eating when you're hungry, he says.
Trying to apply will power "should be your last resort," he said. Much better is to stay away from the mall in the first place, "and it will be much easier to exert self-control."
It might be preferable to shop on the Internet so you're not surrounded by buyers, although the convenience of online shopping holds its own temptations, he said.
If you do go to a mall, commit yourself beforehand to a hard limit on spending, Loewenstein recommends. "Generally, people tend to be a lot more tempted when there is some kind of uncertainty about whether you're going to get whatever it is you're tempted by," he said.