In spite of our best efforts to protect ourselves from abusing our bodies and bank balances, every Christmas we spend money we don’t have and eat food we don’t need. So why do we do it? Deirdre Hynds gets behind the psychology.
Christmas is an emotionally charged time of year. It’s a dizzying mix of family and school reunions, work parties, Secret Santa duties, reconnaissance missions to the attic for decoration retrieval, and of course the retail rollercoaster experience of Christmas gift shopping. The pressure is on to feel happy and joyous, but the excessive consumer-driven focus very often leaves us feeling stressed, depleted, and of course - broke. In spite of our best efforts to protect ourselves from abusing our bodies and our bank balances, we continue to trample familiar territory, spending money we don’t have and partaking in gluttonous gorging at the festive trough.
While we are accountable for our own well-being, we are not totally to blame for Christmas induced consumerist hedonism.
Human beings are social animals, linked together by shared beliefs and values. This is both a weakness and a strength. Brands use this fact against us by tapping into the pulsing collective mass of our shared fears, hopes, desires and anxieties and the consumer blind spots which offer the greatest opportunity for exploitation are related to the murky area of emotions and feelings.
Even those predisposed to the most sober of temperament will allow themselves the indulgence of seasonally induced nostalgia; however, our wistful walks down memory lane are often driven by brands who attempt to harness the powerful feelings created by this intensely personal experience. The word ‘Nostalgia’ comes from the Greek nostos, to return home, and algia, a painful condition. It is often described as a ‘bittersweet’ experience, a sense of happiness tinged with longing or sadness.
Research has suggested that the areas in our brain that are connected to memory and novelty are activated and coordinate to reward us when we trigger feelings of nostalgia. This reward occurs as nostalgia is subject to embellishment, often treating the experiencer to distorted perceptions that lead to an idealised recollection of one’s own past, highlighting the positive effects of being. It is this positivity that brands want to be associated with, so they prompt and prime a nostalgic response from consumers by using decades old advertisements, or relaunching vintage classics to encourage them to associate happy experiences from their past with the brand’s selected product.
When it comes to emotions in general, we find them confusing, that’s why psychotherapy and psychiatry are thriving industries.
Brands use tropes and techniques designed to encourage nostalgic thinking, but also to elicit joy, excitement, worry and guilt. A mood experienced by an individual is often treated like a piece of product information in an advertisement. When you hear the Coke Christmas jingle it may make you feel excited and happy, and although that happiness relates to the feelings Christmas may have sparked in you as a child, our brain finds it hard to identify and distinguish the exact source of the good mood. Advertising works by directing your brain to associate the good feeling with the brand or product, which will inevitably guide your decisions when you shop.
And when it comes to Christmas, we shop a lot! In fact the shopping element of Christmas, and the requirement to find the perfect gift, can often be the most stressful part of the festive season. This can tarnish the benefits of gift giving which is inherently positive as it enables expressions of appreciation and reinforces established relationships. Why then do gifters experience an intensely felt sense of anxiety when faced with the reality of their shopping list? It is caused by a desire to please the recipient but a doubt that it is achievable. Gift giving is strongly related to the givers own identity. Once an individual invests energy and thought in choosing a gift, the item becomes ‘charged’ with the energy of that gifter, which results in an unintentional purchase of a gift that is more reflective of the gifter’s tastes or intentions, than the personality or taste preferences of the person the gift is intended for.
This specific type of gifting exemplifies ‘signalling’, which is behaviour motivated by the belief that certain actions will convey particular information about the individual self to others.
Signalling can be driven by the need to feel a sense of belonging, the need for self-expression and the need for self-enhancement.
Signalling relates to the area of needs, and needs are something that every human being shares. Advertising and marketing work by converting, both conscious and unconsciously, needs into wants, for example, ‘I need food’ – ‘I want a Dominos’, ‘I need respect and admiration from others’ – ‘I want a BMW’. Most of our consumer purchasing choices are driven at an unconscious level by these needs. It gets really confusing when we don’t really understand the origin of our mood. An individual may be experiencing loneliness, isolation or regret, particularly during the emotionally charged period of Christmas. Brands are usually one step ahead of us having already converted a vague but keenly felt need for social connectedness, love, or belonging, into a want for their product.
Overeating at Christmas is hard to limit, but there is a really simple biological hack to avoid it, which is to limit the amount of choice you have available in the house. Humans are designed to seek as much variety in our diet as possible to get all of the nutrients we needed to survive. Unfortunately this biological fact was designed to help us survive drought and famine, and because we now have access to any type of food we want at any time, we tend to overeat. Stock up the house with goodies, just avoid buying unnecessary multiple varieties of each. And no-one, especially Cadburys, Nestle and Mars et al, wants to hear it but avoid stocking up the larder with multi-selection boxes of sweets.
HOW TO SURVIVE CHRISTMAS
Economist Richard Thaler famously challenged what he termed The ‘Econ’, the notion of a rational human being who relies on scientific reasoning and evidence when making decisions. Thaler and his colleagues have continued to demonstrate the fallacy of this mythical being. Humans don’t always make sensible choices, we do things that harm ourselves and each other on both a domestic and international scale.
In particular, when it comes to decision-making, humans demonstrate a forward planning defect. We lack the ability to relate to our future self with a sense of empathy, research has demonstrated that we think about our future selves coldly, similar to how you might regard a stranger.
1. Financial Visualisation
To enable ourselves to make better long-term decisions we must try to cultivate what is called ‘proscriptive planning’ and generate a very basic sense of kindness towards our future self. Take the time before the festivities commence to visualise yourself sitting down to look at your bank balance in January. Imagine very clearly how it might feel to be in debt, or short on cash. This will help you to generate a sense of compassion towards your future self, promote considered consumerist behaviour, and mitigate unnecessary spending.
2. Reeling in the Years
Enjoy feeling nostalgic, and reflecting on time gone by, but use the sentiments productively to reach out to friends and family if you are in a position to do so. Organise holiday meet-ups, family walks, or just pick up the phone and give that person from your past a call. It will satiate your basic human need for social connection, which should reduce the urge to spend to fill this gap.
3. Get off the Festive Grid
Avoid getting swept up in a festive frenzy by curtailing social media use where you may be exposed to peers who post details about Christmas shopping, which may place you under pressure to act in a similar fashion to them. Turn off alerts or simply choose to hide comments from likely candidates.
4. Not just for Christmas…
Think about this, can you remember all of the presents that were bought for you last year? Or ask the people you bought presents for if they can remember the gift you spent a lot of time and money on? Studies suggest that the best gifts to buy people are experiences; like a ticket to a gig, or a cookery class, because of the greater emotion evoked when the recipient experienced the gift (in effect they get two gifts, one when they open the present, and again when they actually experience it). Even better again, buy something you can both do together, research shows that shared experiences are more enjoyable and remembered for longer periods of time. An added benefit of this is that you are unlikely to spend money on items which are due to be discounted once the sales start in January, so you can avoid the post- purchase funk!
5. AND FINALLY...
Create your own Christmas countdown calendar and fill it with things that bring you joy and fulfilment, not stress and anxiety. Try to be organised, make that list and check it twice! Avoid last minute panicked over-spending, and remind yourself that the ‘x sleeps to Christmas’ messages are a promise, not a threat.
Deirdre Hynds is a Director of Sound PR and specialises in the area of Consumer Psychology. @deehynds
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