In wealthy countries around the world, clothes shopping has become a widespread pastime, a powerfully pleasurable and sometimes addictive activity that exists as a constant presence, much like social media. The Internet and the proliferation of inexpensive clothing have made shopping a form of cheap, endlessly available entertainment—one where the point isn’t what you buy so much as it's the act of shopping itself.
This dynamic has significant consequences. Secondhand stores receive more clothes than they can manage and landfills are overstuffed with clothing and shoes that don’t break down easily. Consumers run the risk of ending up on a hedonic treadmill in which the continuous pursuit of new stuff leaves them unhappy and unfulfilled. For most, breaking the cycle isn’t as easy as just vowing to buy nothing. It’s no accident that shopping has become such an absorbing and compulsive activity: The reasons are in our neurology, economics, culture, and technology.
Shopping is a complex process, neurologically speaking. In 2007 a team of researchers from Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon looked at the brains of test subjects using fMRI technology as they made decisions while out buying clothes. The researchers found that when they showed one of the study’s subjects a desirable object for sale, the pleasure center, or nucleus ambens, in the subject’s brain lit up. The more the person wanted the item, the more activity the fMRI detected.
The researchers then showed the subject the item’s price. The medial prefrontal cortex weighed the decision, as the insula, which processes pain, reacted to the cost. Deciding whether to buy put the brain, as the study put it, in a “hedonic competition between the immediate pleasure of acquisition and an equally immediate pain of paying.” The mindset is in line with evidence that shows happiness in shopping comes from the pursuit of goods—from the sensation of wanting something.