Research Reported in the New York Times

Three recent articles in the New York Times attracted our attention. “Money Doesn’t Talk,” by Shivani Vora, looks at the practice among women of disguising some of their purchases by paying cash, a practice that has grown in recent years even though more and more women are themselves wage earners. Why do they do it? Some acknowledge that they want to hide their purchases from a partner or spouse, or to hide their purchases (and the associated guilt) from themselves. Cash, which leaves no paper trail, is a great cover-up. Other women say they are asserting their independence, making choices that can’t be tracked by someone else. This is a delicate distinction. How the practice is viewed may well turn on the matter of whether a woman sees her shopping as a secret she’s keeping or as simply a private matter.

Even if they consider their financial reality to be a secret or private matter, some women are choosing to tell all in their blogs, reports John Leland in “Debtors Search for Discipline Through Blogs.” The idea is that fessing up in public about their debt gives these women some control; they’re shining a light on a dark truth and can now better face it, feeling more accountable to themselves and to their readers. This is particularly powerful for women who don’t yet feel ready to level with their partners or families. “I teach people how to get out of debt for a living, but I couldn’t do it myself until I started the blog,” said a woman who conducts seminars in personal finance for a California bank. At Stopping Overshopping we notice a similar phenomenon, whether we’re working with groups or individuals: being accountable to a Shopping Support Buddy, a therapist, and/or a self-help or treatment group is a huge help in resisting overshopping impulses.

Reporters and overshoppers often ask us, “What about biological factors in compulsive buying?” Well, “now that scientists have spotted the pain and pleasure centers in the brain, they’ve moved on to more expensive real estate: the brain’s shopping center,” writes John Tierney in “The Voices in My Head Say ‘Buy it!’ Why Argue?” Two regions of the brain have now been identified as strong candidates for affecting purchasing decisions. The nucleus accumbens, which is associated with deciding to purchase something, is a part of the brain that’s activated when something pleasant has occurred or is likely to. The insula, on the other hand, is a region of the brain that’s activated when we see, smell, or anticipate something negative, like painful feelings when we spend money; the insula might account for some of the decision not to purchase something. Whether this information can be put to practical use remains to be seen.

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