For decades, scientists have attempted to understand why the human body is rewarded for certain acts which don’t relate to our physical well-being. In the case of our “need” for in-demand products, the key to unlocking the mystery may center on how the brain reacts to “hype.”
Whether it’s satiating the desires one holds near to their heart, like purchasing a new pair of shoes, or something less tangible, like glimpsing the latest Apple device, the call and response of consumer satisfaction isn’t simply a symptom of consumerism. Instead, it’s something that’s hardwired into our brains, and has been since the time men and women first began roaming this planet.
Human basic needs were first categorised in an intellectual setting with the publishing of Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” in Psychological Review. In it, Maslow proposed that every “healthy” adult requires that their needs be met in a specific order: physiological, safety, long and belonging, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence. These were realized in the form of a pyramid, which suggests things like oxygen, food, sex and sleep need to be taken care of first, while other, less vital things come afterwards. Once the body understands what it needs to survive, the theory states that person is then free to move on to the next step towards “enlightenment.” Although, as the saying goes, so often “life gets in the way.”v
In a contemporary context, professional finance writer and speaker Luke Landes ties this psychology theory to budgeting as well. According to him, physiological needs (including food, water, clothing and shelter) should be accounted for first in a person’s budget. Next, safety needs like insurance, expenses related to your work, and utilities must be met. Then comes all the fun stuff. In a perfect world, Landes believes that a person with a sensible budget should spend 50% of their after-tax expenses on “needs,” 30% on “wants,” and 20% on “savings.” That 30% “want” window is why an entity like Highsnobiety exists.
While consumerism is certainly alive and well in the 21st Century, there’s evidence that people are starting to favor “access as opposed to ownership.” As WIRED recently noted, juggernauts like Apple and Amazon have seen only modest gains in recent years thanks to the ease with which things can be obtained — like streaming films or renting textbooks — all of which have eliminated the need to buy.
“Amazon has made streaming media so easy that the practical incentive to buy diminishes,” WIRED notes. “Renting or buying digital video from Amazon, for example, never has to involve a download. You never really have to ‘have’ it. It simply streams from Amazon’s cloud to apps, browsers, and over-the-top internet TV boxes.”
For centuries, if a person wanted something, they either bought it, stole it, or borrowed it. Today, that is no longer the case. But how has this lessening of ownership affected humans on a physical level?
When a person obtains something they really want it releases dopamine in the brain, which is critical to a person’s mental health, allowing for pleasure and satisfaction to manifest in a familiar warm feeling. Dopamine is chemically released when we experience something new, exciting or challenging, and for many people, shopping is all those things wrapped up in one experience. If we take it a step further, when it comes to acquiring “hype” items like a pair of YEEZY sneakers or limited-editionofferings from Supreme — both of which embody the antithesis of Amazon and Netflix’s streaming strategies — there’s actually far more at play than simple ego. Here the dopamine rush is magnified several times, as the experience is both new and exciting (and very often challenging too).
This sneaker right here is like having tickets to El Classico with seats in the first row behind the goal.