In the 1988 film Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon’s character argues that, “no one really chooses, it’s all a matter of quantum physics and molecular attraction.” Implying there are forces at work that defy our comprehension. The concept of value, just like the concept of money, is a mental construct that is subjective and open to interpretation (Harari 2011). Yet, before there was any concept of value, money or choice, there was only the need to survive. Choice became a luxury of time and innovation. Today, the byproduct of innovation is the stress that comes with too many options and the habit of deciding on something just for the sake of it.
According to Charles Duhigg habits are triggered by a cue that leads to a routine and then a reward which he calls “The Habit Loop” (Duhigg 2014). The more the brain becomes accustomed to a habit involving “natural reinforcers,” the more compelled the brain is to repeat that habit. Then dopamine is released, and the cycle continues (McKay 2014, Duhigg 2014). Natural reinforcers fueled the habit loop of early humans. These represent the physiological aspects of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs which include food, shelter and finding a mate. A need that supersedes choice.
Today, these habits and routines represent themselves in our social interactions and purchasing habits. The incomplete habit loop represents the feeling someone gets when they run out of Doritos (Mckay, 2014) or if a love interest doesn’t text them back. It is the feeling after binging your favorite Netflix series that popular culture coined the “show hole.” A modern description of the brain reacting to a reduction in a once steady stream of dopamine and the feeling associated with the end of a series and not knowing what happens next.
The habit loop is used by marketers and producers to create a craving. Cravings are when the brain registers the reward before the routine (Duhigg 2014). It is how the brain reacts to “cliffhangers” or clickbait. The cue is a question, and the craving comes from the feeling of having-to-know; the routine is finding out by clicking or tuning in, and the dopamine reward comes with knowing. The primitive brain doesn’t realize that it doesn’t care, or that it doesn’t matter.
If it weren’t for this innate impulse, early humans would have been happy just having the utility of fire over 70,000 years ago (Harari 2011). Instead, it opened the door to new possibilities. It completely changed the landscape of their lives the same way technology, computers, and the internet shape ours today. After ancient humans discovered fire and its benefits, using it was no longer a choice. Try not using the internet today, try being a business that doesn’t use QuickBooks and email. You would become irrelevant in an environment that is naturally and rapidly evolving.
Just as fire became essential to survival, for businesses to survive in the free market, they needed to keep selling products and services, and consumers needed to keep buying. Like fire, this concept changed the landscape of marketing because companies used the same methods to manipulate the same instincts in the consumer that drive companies to innovate, adapt, and stay competitive.
Novelty and new products also trigger the habit loop, which helps create new markets. Fulfilling needs that customers never knew existed, or at one time was outside the realm of possibility. Introducing a new product triggers the purchase decision process by identifying a want or need. Unfortunately, because of neuroplasticity paired with planned obsolescence, old products lose their appeal the minute someone releases a newer, therefore perceived as better, product. The same principle that lures consumers to products also motivates companies to innovate. For example, when Henry Ford was adamant about developing the V8 engine before engineers could conceive whether it was possible (Hill 1937).
The ability to adapt can help a company reframe an existing product to the consumer. For example, in the early 1900s Claude Hopkins turned Pepsodent into an internationally recognized product and was responsible for creating the daily habit of brushing our teeth (Duhigg 2014). The cue was to draw attention to the “film” on people’s teeth. Something so natural no one paid attention; at least until someone brought attention to it. It triggered the habit of brushing our teeth, and the reward was the feeling of clean teeth (Duhigg 2014). According to Duhigg, Hopkins’ ability to market products based on the habit loop was so revolutionary, “Consumer goods giants, video game designers, food companies, hospitals, and salesmen around the world,” use the same principles today.
Toothpaste not only became part of a new habit, but it would also classify as being a beauty product. Beauty meant the consumer was now self-conscious about the quality of their teeth and the smell of their breath. Self-consciousness would become the cornerstone of Procter and Gambles multi-million-dollar marketing campaign for Febreze (Duhigg 2014). Marketers realized, during product testing, that a woman with nine cats was not using her sample of Febreze. She did not think her house smelled, which was a problem because how could Febreze sell a product that eliminates odors if the consumer was unaware of it? That removed the opportunity to create a cue concerning a bad smell, and the reward of a fresh scent. It turns out the cat lover had become, “”nose-blind,” as Febreze marketers would call it, and it soon became the foundation of their marketing campaign (Duhigg 2014). The cue became the possibility of a hidden odor, and the routine was to use Febreze; the more self-conscious one became about an unknown smell, the more Febreze they would use.
Fresh breath and appealing fragrances have become part of the criterion for social acceptance and how we perceive others and they perceive us, also known as the looking-glass-self. According to Lucksted and Drapalski (2015), “The looking-glass-self proposed that ideas about ourselves are profoundly shaped by how we believe others see us–that one’s self-concept is socially constructed. As a result, negative judgments from others are often incorporated into one’s self-concept” (p. 99). The result is a natural desire to appease others. With time people will act in a manner that aligns with their perception of themselves, which ironically, is based on the interpretation and opinion of others.
Rationalization of our self-concept leads to using cognitive biases to rationalize behavior. Over time, personal experiences, actions, and habits manifest into the same self-perception. Modern stressful situations create the habit of using cognitive biases to protect that self-perception (Duhigg 2014). Human beings develop a personal narrative throughout their lives, which becomes the justification for their identity. Psychologists refer to this narrative as a “schema,” (Lukianoff & Haidt 2018). This is present in everyday consumerism where consumers use products to identify or define themselves and where, “an imagined order lies in a material world,” (Harari 2014).
Marketing closely resembles the methods used by individuals to achieve social acceptance. Individuals use consumer goods to help define themselves as individuals based on their hobbies, likes, and dislikes. Social or cultural customs revolve around gifts to show respect or appreciation. People market themselves by their clothes, music, books and more. Creating a relationship based on mutual interests is personal market segmentation, positioning, and targeting. A man going to a bar to meet women is a variation of pop- up ads.
Maslow’s hierarchy is a model for market segmentation as social expectations evolve. Feedback and validation have become a natural reinforcer to the consumer, contributing to the subconscious motivation to get social stability through friendship and a sense of connection. (Wong, Wong, and Ke 2016).
The Happiness Hypothesis, a metaphor presented by cognitive-behavioral therapists, describes a man riding an elephant modeling how the mind is made up of two different parts. The man represents conscious choices or “controlled” processes, while the elephant represents the processes controlled by the primitive brain and without our conscious awareness (Lukianoff & Haidt 2018). This metaphor shows how the rider thinks they are in control, yet the elephant is always overpowering him. Instead of understanding or attempting to understand, the rider exhibits emotional reasoning to rationalize his lack of control. Happiness becomes another social construct with a criterion contingent on income, experiences and material belongings. In the theme of “new” and “more” happiness means doing more new things and fuels the habit loop or the hedonic treadmill effect.
Our ancient hunter and gatherer ancestors were continually searching for food, shelter, and a mate. The concept of the future relied on surviving until their next meal. The result was constant gratification. It wasn’t until our ancestors got a surplus in resources that the first opportunity to delay self-gratification presented itself (Peterson 2018).
In theory, the concept to delay gratification was the first form of marketing with the intent that it brings value and sustenance to others while also creating a marketplace for trade, goodwill, and social capital. Ironically, the opportunity to delay gratification became the catalyst for market growth and strengthened by failing to delay gratification. That is because it is twice as hard to break a habit; even more so if we are unaware of it. In a culture that promotes spending, romanticizes the unknown, and encourages indulgence, it leaves less time to question social norms. Instead, it leads to the habit of using cognitive biases to save time, rationalize our behavior and continue spending.
These biases include, “the bandwagon effect”, which follows what others are doing and leads to self-deception, oversimplification, and emotional reasoning; “Loss Aversion”, the fear of losses over gains; “Framing Bias”, deciding based on presentation as opposed to facts; “Anchoring Bias”, where pre-existing data skews new data and the decision-making process; “Confirmation Bias”, where people seek information or data that confirms pre-existing notions and ignore contrary information (Lukianoff & Haidt 2019).
The biases used to rationalize everyday behavior shows in the overconsumption of today’s society. It has become clear in the current rise of obesity, heart disease, and the growing self-storage industry. A clear sign that consumers are buying too much stuff. Hoarding is loss-aversion because instead of being able to recognize the sunk costs around them, they will pay extra to gain more storage. The lack of conscious awareness makes it easy not to question the slogans, mantras, and encouragement for consumers saying they deserve more or to trust their feelings. For example, Coca-Cola using the phrase, “’Diet Coke. Do what feels good”’ (Harari 2011).
The anchoring bias and confirmation bias can lead to strong customer loyalty and can help increase customer retention. For example, when consumers advocate so much for a product, it resembles a modern version of the Hatfield’s vs McCoy’s. For instance, Apple vs. PC or Apple vs. Android and the psychological effects of the blue bubble vs. the green bubble in social circles. Another example is Chevy vs. Ford, or even more complicated Democrats vs. Republicans. Something so ingrained in our history and culture that the thought of being wrong would threaten the very essence of who people believe they are.
It is these pitfalls in human psychology that hinders our conscious awareness that we are, in fact, just going with the flow of capitalism. Like boating down the river and believing you are in control of what direction you go when you barely know how to paddle left or right. But first you need to buy a boat, so you don’t drown; or rent a boat if you can’t afford to buy one. Then you need to buy a paddle. All is well until someone floats by with a bigger boat where it looks like they are shooting a Bud light commercial. That is why the consumer does not have the power. We only tell ourselves we do. That is why Buddhists say, “Life is suffering” because we cannot let go of attachments and fear. That even with a conscious awareness, we still risk being swept away in a universe that values survival above all else. That is why humans, specifically Americans, are physiologically susceptible to mass consumerism. The social tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs contributes to purchases that frame our self-perception. The indoctrination of buying products and spending money has become a compulsion and social norm. We, as consumers, may choose what to buy but will always be directed by the current of capitalism and self-preservation.