Irrational Humans Trying To Be Rational Buyers

I was listening to one of personal productivity maven’ David Allen’s teleseminars and he said something incisive about the impulse to buy fancy stuff. People think they want to buy a sports car, Allen said, but maybe what they really want is the sense of freedom they think a sports car will give them. Advertisers understand this and use it to get you to buy stuff. It’s the principle of “selling the sizzle, not the steak.”

So what do we do if we want to curb impulse spending? Try to stop a moment and think about what’s really motivating the desire. I want to buy x because it will give me y. What is the y? Can y be substituted with z, which gives me the same feeling but is cheaper or better for me? Failure to understand this algebra is how rich people end up with a garage full of import cars, and a medicine cabinet full of Valium.

(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. INconsumer says:

    i would totally shop at this store.

  2. TechnoDestructo says:

    “People think they want to buy a sports car, he said, but what they really want is the sense of freedom they think a sports car will give them.”

    Spoken like someone who’s never owned a sports car.

  3. QuantumRiff says:

    @INconsumer: A great American TV hero, Al Bundy, once said, “Pretty women make you buy beer, ugly women make you drink beer!”

  4. ratnerstar says:


    People think they want to buy a sports car, but what they really want are the chicks they think a sports car will get them.

  5. darkclawsofchaos says:

    I’ll buy a piece of that, no wait, that sexist, I buy a pair!

  6. MadTheologian says:

    Why don’t rich people cut out the middleman, ditch the cars and aim straight for the Valium! Mind trips are easier to take.

  7. Scuba Steve says:

    I want a sports car, but a regular car would give me more freedom. In the form of cash.

  8. goodkitty says:

    I’ve tried to do exactly this (substitute Y for X) for a while but found it doesn’t really work. You -know- you’re shortchanging yourself, and it backfires. It’s like trying to convince yourself to have celery when you want McDonald’s fries, it’s not the same thing. Or worse, when you do have the celery but then load it up with calorie-heavy things like peanut butter, and end up the same (or worse) off than having just done the bad thing in the first place.

    What does work in my experience is what was commented on a few articles back, which is to just save money by spending a sane amount of money less often on higher-quality items. If you have the Gucci bag, you don’t need the shoes as much, as compared to decking yourself out head to toe for the same amount of cash in the latest K-Mart apparel (which leaves you feeling completely empty and worthless).

  9. BigNutty says:

    You pay for the teleseminar, but what you really want is more money. Or does this guy give advice out for free from the goodness of his heart?

    Note: If you can’t motivate yourself when needed, you have no hope of someone else motivating you.

  10. Dr. Housing Bubble says:

    You also get people purchasing homes for a sense of security and worth. We’ve seen the housing industry exploit this deep part of human nature with perfection. Have you seen those ads where the wife berates the husband for not purchasing the home? The man looks broken in the ad. The implication is if you don’t buy a home what kind of man are you? A direct hit to masculinity. Too bad the ad doesn’t go into the details of a massive absurd mortgage and the fact that people still yield a benefit from renting, a clear substitute.

    Or the lore of the “white picket fence” syndrome. Even numerous people in New York City have this dream and look at where they live. Marketing and advertising are all about this; it takes a lot to fight the forces of consumerism especially if you have a weak sense of your own identity. As the adage goes, you are what you buy.

  11. ElizabethD says:

    Don’t go shopping unless you NEED something. Throw away all catalogs and cancel or block all e-mail advertising. I did this recently and it helps … a lot. I also am beginning to shop at smaller specialty stores rather than big chains. A trip to Target inevitably means I come home with 3X as much stuff as was on my shopping list. No mo’!

  12. mac-phisto says:

    sports car = freedom? nah, sports car = speed. at least to anyone that’s not a poser.

  13. NeedsMoreDitka says:

    I want a sports car. I also want to eat.

  14. GearheadGeek says:

    As soon as I read the headline I was thinking “it’s not as much a problem of irrational humans as it is of gullible ones” and sure enough, the article is about how marketers twist the minds of the weak and inattentive. Over the last few years we’ve been preparing for my partner to go to medical school (he started last July) and to that end I’ve been looking carefully at what I spend and why. I’ve been to a mall once that I can think of in the last year, and that’s because a store that sells scrubs much cheaper than most of the uniform supply places is inside a mall near us. I have both less debt and more in the bank than when we started working towards med school, and we’re quite comfortable. Hell, now that we’re cooking at home way more than we’re eating out, I’ve even lost (a little) weight without trying… I think that’s the next thing to get serious about.

    As far as sports cars go… @TechnoDestructo: There are car people and there are suckers. If you know what a sportscar really is and buy one because that’s what you want, it’s not about freedom and it’s not about marketing, you’re right… it’s about the fun of driving the car. However, I noticed that not long after BMW came out with the Z3, there were LOTS of Z3s on used car lots. I don’t think this happens as much with Miatas, because the Miata isn’t such an image car, but Z3s, older Corvettes, Vipers, SLKs, etc. are largely bought on image. They’re WAY less convenient than “normal” cars, but they’re fun for what they are, and for the driving most people do (alone on a commute to work) they’re just fine, except for the relative difficulty of ingress/egress. Chances are the grey-headed guy in a 10-year-old Porsche bought it because he likes it, but I’d say it’s better than a 50% chance that someone you see in a Z4 or Boxster with paper tags wanted to show they could afford it, or they’re exciting enough to drive it.

  15. Crazytree says:

    Louis. Vuitton. Bag.

    no better example of a shitty product that has caused the idiot masses to part with a month’s salary for a poorly made NOT EVEN LEATHER bag.

    sure they were classy back when Roger Moore used LV luggage in the 007 movies in the 80’s… but now they’re the purview of materialistic morons and Chinese hookers.

  16. TechnoDestructo says:

    A sports car won’t get you chicks (well, not a low-end one anyway) but it doesn’t hurt.

  17. RandomHookup says:

    @TechnoDestructo: Low-end chicks work fine, too. Oh, sorry, I misread that. Never mind.

  18. @ratnerstar: LOL, yeah, nothing screams “TINY PENIS AND INSECURE ABOUT IT” like a middle-aged dude in a sports car.

  19. Rusted says:

    @Scuba Steve: Having driven all kinds, I’m not going back to normal. I like rides that actually don’t wallow like a land barge. My compromise is a Baja. Not fast but I don’t need Dramamine.

  20. Starfury says:

    I would shop at this store too.

    And I don’t want just a “sports car” I want a Ferrari.

  21. floydianslip6 says:

    @goodkitty: You actually BURN calories eating celery.