It’s Science: The Brains of Spendthrifts Fuction Differently Than Tightwads

We are a definitely a tightwad, but what does that mean, really? That we avoid buying things, even if we know we need them? That we still don’t own a microwave? What’s wrong with us? The New York Times has the answer, via Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities. It turns out that one’s shopping habits have a lot to do with how active two centers of the brain are, the “nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain with dopamine receptors that are activated when you experience or anticipate something pleasant, like making money or drinking something tasty,” and the insula, a “region of the brain activated when you smell something bad, see a disgusting picture or anticipate a painful shock.”

When a shopper sees something they want to buy, the nucleus accumbens is activated, which feels good, and so the shopper tends to buy. When the price is too high, the insula turns on and the good times are over. This explains why people prefer to “pay later” with credit, or otherwise eliminate or downplay the activity caused by the insula. This doesn’t work for us, so we assume that either our nucleus accubens is broken, or our insula is hyperactive, making us a tightwad. Neat. Which one are you?—MEGHANN MARCO

The Voices in My Head Say ‘Buy It!’ Why Argue? [New York Times]

PREVIOUSLY: Brain Scans Predict If You’ll Buy Something


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  1. shoegazer says:

    Tightwad, definitely. Does this have anything to do with all those “Emotional Quotient” tests where you forgo a bar of chocolate now for two tomorrow?

  2. kerry says:

    I’m totally one of the ones with a defective insula (like the person who wrote the article). It doesn’t cause me nearly enough pain to write big checks, spend lots of cash or pay my credit card bill. I always pay everything on time, because the fear of debt is enough on its own.

    @shoegazer – My mom’s favorite anecdote about me was when I was in preschool they periodically did one of those EQ tests with a marshmallow. They’d sit me down, put a marshmallow in front of me and say “we’re leaving the room, if that marshmallow is still here when we get back, you’ll get another one.” I always ate the marshmallow. I would still eat the marshmallow. I think the marshmallow was in my mouth before they got out the door. Clearly, my impulse control is maybe not so good.

  3. shoegazer says:

    @kerry: whereas, I would have held out for the two, sold them to my friends, and plowed the proceeds into a vast candy retail empire. (sounds of evil laughter)

    Actually I don’t experience any pain at the point of handing over money, but rather intense buyer’s remorse. It’s gotten to the point where I have to psych myself up to buy anything expensive because I know I’ll start second guessing myself afterwards. Except for food. Bring on the lobster.

  4. acambras says:

    I never got to take any kind of marshmallow test. Was I out sick that day??? :-(

  5. Meg Marco says:

    Ew! Plain Marshmallows! Needs hot chocolate.

  6. Dustbunny says:

    I’m a spendthrift. I like buying stuff. Besides, I figure I”m doing my patriotic duty in keeping our consumer economy afloat : )

    I never took the marshamllow test either, but I would have eaten ’em instantly too. The concept of delayed gratification does not exist in my world.

  7. kerry says:

    @acambras –
    I went to a Montessori preschool, I got the impression from my mom (who works there) that they do those kinds of tests pretty frequently to gauge a child’s development.
    Mmmm. Marshmallows. Those vanilla ones from Whole Foods are the bomb, btw.

  8. Keter says:

    Tightwad here, but I actually experience pleasure when I know I have gotten a super great deal on something I need. My latest is a fantastic pair of heavy leather boots I got on closeout for $20 that I am sure will last at least a decade — it feels GREAT to put them on each time, and not just because they are comfortable!

    I don’t even go into some stores because I know the prices will cause me intense irritation. I occasionally feel serious guilt when I mistakenly buy something that turns out to be a turkey, whether I could have known that at the time or not, like the relatively expensive microwave I selected because I wanted one that would last at least a decade, but only lasted 5 years and misbehaved most of that time. Every time I used it, I felt kinda sick. (I replaced it with one I got at a garage sale for $20 that has been a gem.)

  9. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    Hmm what if you are both? I don’t mind spending a lot for quality like when I buy a car, TV, Computer Etc. But if I have to spend more than a few bucks for laundry soap or work clothes I totally get pissed off….

  10. thwarted says:

    I used to be a spendthrift, but became a tightwad last summer after saving every possible dime for a trip to Scotland (which basically killed any tempation to buy on impulse). Now I buy a lot less than I used to. Did I increase my insula or something?

  11. synergy says:

    The NA is also associated with addictive behavior. I think the most studied drugs and the NA is cocaine and nicotine.

  12. Wow. I’m neither. I have no problem buying stuff. Heck, I spent $10 bucks last night on a small round of camembert for today’s lunch. [I’m not loaded or anything, just ok with money – finally].

  13. infmom says:

    The problem with being a tightwad is that all your spendthrift relatives keep trying to borrow money from you. AAAARGH!!!

    Which is why I’m a big fan of Caller ID and my family wonders why I’m never home.

  14. Her Grace says:

    The older I’ve gotten, the more of a tightwad I’ve turned into. I think it has to do with learning to budget and fast–I’m living on student loans, overseas, and have no wiggle room in the budget to get whatever random item takes my fancy. I have a weekly food and play money budget that is kept strictly (every cent gets written down). Seeing what I’ve spent and the little notation of what I spent it ON has really curbed any impulsive buying tendencies I had. I, too, experience some guilt over more expensive purchases, and joy if I find what I need on the cheap.