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Psych-Step Two: Dodge the Gruen Transfer 
Ever forget where you parked your car at the mall? Ever run into a store for a few necessities, only to end up oozing through the aisles clutching objects you suddenly realized you cannot live without? Those scenarios were not accidents. Malls and retail displays are designed to create a quasi-hypnotic state observed by social scientists, dubbed the Gruen transfer (in honor of the late Victor Gruen, the architect who designed this country's earliest shopping malls), and exploited by merchandisers. It sounds like science fiction, but it's real: Humans bombarded with certain kinds of music, light, shapes, and smells go into a mindless shopping daze. Once the Gruen transfer kicks in, we become like Aladdin on quaaludes, groggily grasping at whatever we see.

A Gruen transfer shopping spree is comparable to an eating binge. Like rich food, the dazzling plenty of a shopping center is rare in nature, and we're geared to react to it with almost involuntary greed. But you can use these strategies to protect yourself from going gruesomely Gruen:
  • Always make a shopping list before heading to the store, and don't buy anything that isn't on it. Give someone else the list and have him or her shop for you, or take a friend shopping to keep yourself on track.
  • As you walk into any retail establishment, take a moment to stop and notice landmarks that will help you find the exit quickly. Picture yourself walking out briskly with only the items you need.
  • Steel yourself at checkout counters. Items are placed there to tempt you after the Gruen transfer has had maximum time to transform your brain into a kumquat.
  • Keep the Gruen transfer out of your house: If you glimpse an infomercial, switch the channel. The longer you watch, the more vulnerable you are to sales hypnosis.

Psych-Step Three: Practice Moderation
One reason so many dieters bounce back up to their original chubbiness is that the body "reads" a deprivation diet as famine—and packs on fat to ward off starvation during the next natural disaster. To avoid this reaction, dieters must eat enough "cheat treats" to avoid feeling starved. The same principle applies to buying dieters. If you start to feel deprived, you're in danger of binge buying. The cure is a relatively healthy cheat treat.

In this area, buying diets are easier than weight loss diets. Your primal senses know the difference between a "treat" like salted celery and a jelly doughnut. But only the mind sees a significant difference between a $4 pack of sticky notes printed with Van Gogh's sunflowers and the $40 million original. Given a choice between a $15,000 Ferrari da Varese pen and one from the drugstore that lights up (in six colors!), our primal selves will happily accept the latter.

The act of finding and taking possession of an object is all the reward your hunter-gatherer self really wants. Such rewards can be inexpensive or even free. Once, on a nature retreat, I assembled a fire-making kit from whittled sticks and plant fibers that brought me as much joy as a new refrigerator. Not that I'm advocating a return to primitive life. I'm simply saying that by understanding our primordial programming, we can avoid buying things that will only turn our 21st-century "caves" into troves of objects we'll never use.

I've been applying buying-diet strategies for some time. Ironically, tonight's pharmacy spree convinced me they're working. Once, I'd have coped with my anxiety by rushing to the mall. Crazed by scarcity thinking and the Gruen transfer, I'd have splurged in expensive boutiques, then felt guilty—catalyzing more anxious shopping. So it's a triumph that tonight I took my freaked-out self to a place where the treats were cheap and marginally useful.

As my buying diet continues, I'll use up my tiny toiletries and take all the supplements, while my dog disposes of his toys by eating them. Gradually, my home will grow clearer—until, if you were to visit, you'd find me living in Zen-like purity, neither spending nor possessing in excess. I'd greet you with perfect serenity and perhaps one small, perfect gift. It would probably be a pen.

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