Yesterday the stores reopened in Austria after a six week lockdown. In a newspaper interview, the managing director of a discount fashion chain with over 180 outlets expressed his joy and relief. Customers could once again pay tribute in his shopping temples fulfilling a “basic human need”.

What? When did shopping become a basic human need? Apparently, I wasn’t paying close attention in Psychology 101 when we learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As I recall Maslow structured our needs as a pyramid with our basic needs forming the base. The primary basic needs are physiological – food, water, shelter, and rest. Built on these are the secondary basic needs of security and safety.

A case could be made that hamster shopping at some level fulfills the second level needs. Consider the case of toilet paper hoarding. You are worried about COVID-19 and want to feel that you can actively counteract the diffuse fear of something uncontrollable. So, you buy more toilet paper than you actually need. This is more to improve your emotional well-being then to satisfy a basic physical requirement.

Unfortunately, toilet paper lands on the top of your shopping car where it is clearly visible. This creates an imitation effect in other shoppers and voilà people are ripping the Charmin out of Mr. Whipple’s hands faster than he can squeeze it.

However, the above mentioned discount fashion chain doesn’t sell toilet paper. (At least I don’t think they do. In full disclosure I have never been in one of their stores.) Therefore I assume that the managing director is referring to other needs. What these are, however, is unclear.

Yesterday, in a reopened mall a television reporter asked two giddy shoppers: “What are you shopping for today? What do you need?”

Their response: “We don’t really need anything, but we always find something.”

This does not sound like the fulfillment of basic needs to me. It sounds like addiction.

A growing body of research shows that shopping boosts our mood and makes us feel better – at least temporarily. This can be traced to the brain chemical dopamine which is crucial to our mental and physical health. Dopamine also plays a role in drug use and other addictive behaviors and is associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. It is released when we experience something new. For many people, shopping for things they don’t really need releases dopamine and gives them a short term “consumer high”.

What is your opinion of shopping – addictive behavior or fulfillment of basic needs? Leave a comment.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels.

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