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Addiction by Design: How our Seeking instinct is used to get us to shop, browse, buy; and why we like it.

In 1954, scientists James Olds and Peter Milner implanted an electrode into a rat's brain. They were looking for the part of the brain that could signal the rat to turn left or right in a maze, but what they found was far more interesting. When they stimulated this area of the brain, the rat stood up, sniffed the air & looked around, just as if it had discovered a tasty piece of cheese.

Their next experiment would make them famous. They put the rat in a cage & allowed them to push the lever that sent the electrical signal to the brain. These rats worked very hard at pushing this lever, sometimes pushing it 2000 times an hour (once every 2 seconds) until they collapsed from exhaustion.

Later scientists let the rats do this until they burned out this area of the brain, and they no longer desired anything - even food that was shoved right under their noses. At the time, it was believe that Olds & Milner had discovered the reward center of the brain and that the rats were experiencing intense pleasure, which is why they kept pushing the lever. Others doubt this theory.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has dubbed this the "seeking" area of the brain. The rats were not experiencing intense pleasure, but rather, were triggering the part of their brain that causes them to seek things out. If the reward is what we're looking for, the seeking area of the brain is the part that motivates us to look for it. Reward & Seeking are two halves of the same coin.

University of Michigan professor Kent Berridge calls these two systems wanting and liking, and according to Berridge, people are wired to have a stronger wanting system than a liking system.

"It's relatively hard for a brain to generate pleasure, because it needs to activate different opioid sites together to make you like something more," Berridge said. "It's easier to activate desire, because a brain has several 'wanting' pathways available for the task. Sometimes a brain will like the rewards it wants. But other times it just wants them." [link]

People with addictions & with eating disorders may have a strong 'wanting' pathway in the brain. Even if they gain little pleasure from the actions they're taking, they feel compelled to take them. At some point, this obsession & compulsion without reward begins to look like addiction.

"Addictions," says Joseph Frascella, director of the division of clinical neuroscience at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "are repetitive behaviors in the face of negative consequences, the desire to continue something you know is bad for you." [link]

Addiction is a powerful system that involves many areas of the brain. The prefrontal cortex (the thinking, rational, planning part of the brain) is heavily involved in mediating the impulses of wanting & liking (what we would call "thinking about it rationally"), but under times of stress, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the "fight or flight" mechanism takes over.

Researchers decided to test this hypothesis. They gave subjects a number to remember - either an easy 2 digit number or a difficult 7 digit number (7 items being roughly the limit of short term memory). They never told the subject that this was part of the experiment, just that they'd need to input this number into a computer to start the experiment. While on the way to the computer, another researcher would stop them & offer a treat - either a bit of candy or a healthy salad.

The subjects who had a longer number to memorize chose the candy over the healthy snack. Their prefrontal cortex was occupied trying to remember the longer number, and their willpower, and ability to make good decisions was reduced.

If you want to trigger compulsive, or even impulsive behaviors, one way to grease the wheels is to occupy the thinking portion of the brain. Another is to bypass it entirely.

Mall makers are especially adept at bypassing the thinking area of the brain.

Doctors began to apply psychological theory to the behavioral studies of humans in England starting in the 1940s and found that appealing indirectly to the senses of the subjects could circumvent the conscious mind, and the decisions of the subjects could thus be controlled. [link]

Victor Gruen designed the modern mall to disorient the people who visited. This act disorients people and turns them into shopping zombies. We call this moment The Gruen Transfer.

The layout of the mall does not employ straight lines, as would seem the obvious choice.  Rather, subtle gradients of angling veer people down the pathways, especially in the food court areas.  Along with climate control, a lack of clocks, and centrally controlled lighting, the consumer loses all sense of direction, time of day, and duration of their stay.  Coupled with the maze-like design of the walkways (as well as of the shops themselves), the mall becomes a very disorienting experience.  Mirrors and glass windows accentuate this confusion, along with reflective walkways and mannequins, which unconsciously infer the illusion of more motion and human activity.  Parking is often located underneath the mall structure, so shoppers cannot determine where in the mall they are making their entrance (although these locations are precisely scripted), which adds to the disorientation. [link]

By disorienting people and stimulating them through Muzak, scents, strange lighting & acoustics, mall makers have found a back door into the seeking area of the brain. The disoriented brain doesn't have the capacity to rationalize every possible buying decision, allowing the seeking area of the brain to go unchecked.

These disorientation tactics are also used in Las Vegas casinos.

The mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the "machine zone," in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Once in the zone, gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible--even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion. [link]

These tactics are also used by internet sites to get you click on lots of links. A phenomenon parodied humorously by the webcomic XKCD.


By giving users a wide & branching pathway through the site, where each link promises to "scratch an itch you didn't know you had" the seeking area of the brain is triggered, and the brain is disoriented in a way similar to that of mallgoers. A feeling that many marketers argue is one that we find pleasurable.
Many marketers argue that this disorientation is exactly what the consumer desires without realizing it.  In Marketing to the Mind, the authors argue that people visit the mall solely for its disorientating effect – it is a vacation from the senses, much like drinking alcohol. [link]

Shopaholics agree. As many as 8.9% of Americans may suffer from oniomania (aka being a shopaholic). [link] And if you ask them, I suspect you'll find that they really enjoy shopping. Disorientation, seeking - these are things we don't get much of in our daily lives, but that helped our ancestors survive - seeking food & sex is the core activity for what we call life. Without seeking, we would, as individuals and as a species, stagnate and die. These are primitive instincts that the modern workday denies. As Jaak Panksepp says, "Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems."

At its core, seeking is a pleasurable act. We enjoy seeking things out & finding hidden treasures. It's what causes the lion to chase the gazelle, the pig to seek out the truffle, and the shopper to seek out the deal, and more and more, we get our thrill seeking by design.

April 21, 2010


© Mark Wieczorek