Ever spent more at the shops than you really wanted to? Of course you have, but it might not be all your fault. With Christmas upon us, Greg Dixon examines the subtle ways the giant shopping centres, retailers and even our brains persuade us to spend more than we mean to - and what we might do to stop our wallet getting mauled at the mall.
Santa isn't at home. The tiny white picket fence and the fake grass have been laid out ready for him at Auckland's Sylvia Park mall. There are cheery, laughing elves and merry tinsel and baubles hanging off his tiny, white house which, bizarrely, has what appears to be a real TV aerial too.
Children shopping with their mums stop to look. But Santa's chair is empty, which, to me at least, seems entirely reasonable - it's a Friday afternoon in early November and still more than six weeks to Christmas.
It is, of course, an ancient complaint that the so-called festive season comes earlier every year. That's just business as usual, of course. Christmas' premature entrance, like Easter eggs appearing in supermarkets in February, is now as much a convention as the long queue of squirming children and put-upon mothers who will wait ever so impatiently outside the white picket fences at malls across the land.
At the country's retail stores and shopping precincts, Christmas is not about happy families, full stomachs or Uncle Frank drinking more red than is good for him. It is merely one of the more bleeding obvious ways - like Mothers', Valentine's or Boxing days - that we are persuaded, induced, cajoled (please, pick your own verb) by retailers to part with our money.
The nation's malls are decked with bells and holly by the beginning of November because Christmas makes us, well most of us, feel good. And making us feel good is good for the bottomline, says John Foreman, an Auckland-based expert in retail and mall design.
"If mall managers and retailers can create season 'retail theatre' with a Christmas environment where people can walk from the mall into their store and suddenly feel elated - and that emotion is continued through from the shopfront and at least three metres into the store - then that shop [and mall] will do very, very well."
But we know that. Or at least we can guess what malls are up to with their yuletide tinsel and cutesy Santa houses: mostly they're advertising to us the happy news that it will soon be Christmas.
But that's only part of the story, that's the bit we see. Behind the baubles and ho-ho-ho-ing fellow in the red PJs and the white beard there are subtler influences that begin working on you, at all times of the year, as you wander from the half-light of the (free) covered carparking area into the bright, mostly artifical light of the shopping centre.
How many times, for example, have you gone to your favourite mall intending to stay half an hour or so to buy, say, that pair of jeans you saw on special, only to find that you're still there two hours later carrying shopping bags containing the jeans plus, perhaps, fabulous new shoes, a shirt and a pair of rather expensive new sunglasses? How many times have you wondered: how the hell did that happen?
It all starts with your brain. There are, for our purposes, just two kinds. One might broadly be called the "spender", the other the "saver". The difference is self-evident, but really what separates these two kinds of brains is the ability to delay gratification.
A number of learned experiments have been done on this subject over the past four decades, the most famous involving marshmallows. In the late 60s and early 70s, a large group of children aged 4-6 were successively put in a room by Stanford University scientists where a treat of each child's choice (a marshmallow, say, or a biscuit) had been placed on a chair. As the boffin left the room, the kids were told if they waited to eat the treat until the boffin came back they would receive an extra one too.
Predictably this proved too tough for most; only a third or so of the kids held out and got the second treat.
This mildly interesting behavioural test was made much more intriguing when follow-up research a decade or so later showed that the kids who had held out for the second treat were more likely to be doing better in high school exams than the ones who scoffed the one marshmallow immediately.
Which rather begs the question: does the ability to delay gratification mean you're smarter than a spendthrift with maxed-out credit cards? Well, not necessarily. A recent Newsweek story reported on further testing on some of the original marshmallow kids, now adults in their 40s, with the scientists finding it was the brain rather than having brains that separated spenders from savers.
Using high-tech scanners called functional magnetic resonance imagers (fMRI), researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College analysed brain activity and found three areas of interest.
"In high delayers [of instant gratification]," Newsweek reported, "the brain's thoughtful, rational prefrontal cortex was more active, as was the right interior frontal gyrus, which inhibits the 'I want it now' impluse. Poor delayers had less activity in both regions, but higher activity in regions of the limbic system that respond to instant gratification ... other studies, too, have shown the key role the prefrontal cortex plays in making us willing to defer gratification today in favour of saving for retirement. The dorsolateral PFC, in particular, sends 'calm down' signals to the midbrain's 'I want it now' circuits."
The good news is, of course, that researchers spotting what-is-going-on-where is the first tiny step toward controlling the "I gotta have those shoes" impluse. And the power to control that probably can't come soon enough for some.
In the developed world we are increasingly less likely to delay gratification, says Dr Denise Conroy from the University of Auckland's Business School.
"There are all kinds of reasons. But never before have so many of us, in the developed world, had such immediate access to things - either because we're on a good enough income or because we've got credit.
"You must couple that with the fact that we are the most child-centric generation in history. We've had more than ever before, we've given more than ever before to our children, who have had so much more than any generation. It's this thing of immediacy: 'You deserved it, you've worked hard, you can have it now'. And you don't have to go to Paris to get something from Paris. You can get it on the internet. So much is more accessible now than ever before, both physically and financially. And we're willing to spend more than we have."
Even the increasing tough financial times have made no difference, Conroy believes. Indeed, when times get tough people possibly treat themselves more - we actually like to "self-gift" to give our self-esteem a bit of a polish. "People will think to themselves 'I did a good job,"' says Conroy, "'so I deserve it."'
Another name for this is, of course, retail therapy. And, despite my suspicion that it's just a phrase people use, it seems spending does geniunely offer, at least for a short period, a kind of therapy, according to international marketing "guru" Martin Linstrom. In his best-selling 2008 book Buy-ology: How Everything We Believe About How We Buy Is Wrong, Linstrom says scientific indicators point directly to spending making us happy. This is attributed to dopamine, a chemical compound that operates as a neurotransmitter and a kind of feel-good drug.
"When we first decide to buy something," Lindstrom writes, "the brain cells that release dopamine secrete a burst of good feeling, and this dopamine rush fuels our instinct to keep shopping even when our rational minds tell us we've had enough."
Oh dear. Unfortunately there's more. Lindstrom says this spending-dopamine phemomenon can be traced back to our age-old survival instinct. "That crazy rush of pleasure we may experience from the anticipation of buying, say, a new BlackBerry or Nano may actually be helping us enhance our reproductive success and preparing us for survival. Why? Because consciously or not, we calculate purchases based on how they might bring us social status - and social status is linked with reproductive success."
The flesh, or at least parts of the brain, are weak, then. And that's before we even step into the brightly lit shoppers' paradise that is the mall.
The year was 1956. The place, Minneapolis. The mood, post-war boom.
It seems entirely felicitous than the first enclosed mall in the world was opened in the middle of the midwest of America in the middle of the decade that set the US and the West down the path of all-out materialism and increasingly sophisticated and excessive consumerism.
Rather less predictably, however, the man who conceived of and then designed the world's first mall was a socialist Jewish bohemian called Victor Gruen who'd fled Nazi-occupied Austria. (Apparently he and his wife were driven to Vienna's airport by a friend dressed as a Nazi stormtrooper, according to The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell.)
Gruen arrived in New York in 1938, Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, with "an architect's degree, eight dollars and no English". After failing to make it on Broadway, Gruen took to designing retail spaces.
With Minneapolis' revolutionary Southdale Centre, he took an idea already seen a decade before in California - an open-air shopping centre with a huge carpark - and took the next step: he put a roof on it.
It was actually his attempt to give America something of the sophisticated civility of a European city centre by packing the shops close together and providing places to sit and debate over coffee - one of the specialities of pre-war Vienna.
However, what he'd actually done was create something entirely new and, by luck or prescience, he included features that are still crucial to successful malls to this day: the constant, womb-like temperature, the free carparking, multiple levels, hard-to-find exits, customer entrances into both the ground and the first floor levels and the wide open design that allowed shoppers to see shops above and below them. As The Economist once put it, Gruen's original mall design was like Orville and Wilbur Wright had not just discovered powered flight but "also built a plane with tray tables and a duty-free service".
The design's key success was providing convenience while lowering anxiety.
"The mall's structure leads you around," says Conroy. "They are also very safe places. We can park our car somewhere and we're not worried it's on a meter so there is plenty of time. Most shopping malls have play areas or creches and supervised areas so we can leave our children so we're not feeling rushed. So we are really free to enjoy our shopping experience."
But malls, with their constant temperature and light and the lack of clocks and windows, have become more than just womb-like customer traps, she says.
"The mall has become a place of entertainment, never more so than now. In New Zealand there are cinemas in there now. It is rare that there is not some formalised entertainment going on. As you get closer to Christmas, that speeds up, as it does in the school holidays. [Overseas] there might be iceskating rinks and all kinds of things that you can do as entertainment.
"They are also places of socialising, we often meet friends there, or have a coffee."
The overall effect of this carefully designed place of entertainment - on top of your brain's self-gratification and social status impulses - is to turn you into something like a shopping zombie.
Research shows that, in malls, you lose track of time, your walking pace slows, your heart rate drops and suddenly you're carrying those shopping bags containing the jeans, fabulous new shoes, a shirt and a pair of rather expensive new sunglasses.
This is something dubbed the "Gruen Transfer". This is the confusion, or "scripted disorientation", that malls create, turning you from a purposeful shopper into someone who is wandering around buying things you never thought you'd want.
"It's the relaxation effect," Conroy says. "Really the idea is that it is taking away as much anxiety as possible to allow you to be in a state of relaxation because when you're relaxed you are going to linger - and the longer you linger the more opportunity there is to purchase."
Inevitably - for this is the way of modern maladies - the boffins are working on an external fix.
Scientists at Columbia and New York universities have come up with a way to modify the "I want it now" circuits in the brain's dorsolateral prefrontal cortex using a non-invasive "zapping" technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation. Apparently by stimulating the right area of the brain with powerful magnets they have demonstrated that they can, at least temporarily, shutdown the "I want" circuits in favour of "I will save" ones.
However, as Newsweek drolly notes, so far none of the researchers have "wheeled the device to a shopping mall and aimed it at people who buy $300 sunglasses and $150 T-shirts despite having contributed $0 to their savings".
It could be that this wonder zapper never reaches the mall. Which means the only help available, at least for now, is good advice. Though this puts the responsibility for not being a spendthrift firmly back in the hands of the potential spendthrift, whatever kind of brain they have.
With Christmas just three weeks away, NZ's Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income (a mouthful that was formerly known as the Retirement Commission) has launched a billboard campaign to warn people about silly season debt. Through its Sorted.org.nz website, it's advising us to do things like "work out how much you've got to spend before you go shopping" and "if you have trouble avoiding temptation, leave your credit card at home".
And this, broadly, is really our only defence. Conroy says the way to guard ourselves when we're at the mall is to be conscious of what we're doing before we go. "Are you going purposefully to shop or are you going for general entertainment? You're much more vulnerable when you're going for general entertainment, particularly if you're going with someone else.
"So the idea, much like the supermarket, is go with your shopping list, be task orientated - so if you've got five gifts to get, you've put some significant thought into what you'd like to buy before you go rather than thinking 'I'm going to look for inspiration'. Then you're less likely to overspend and likely to spend less time there in general.
"If you go in searching for gifts, lots of things will be appealing. But if you're going in to search for specific items that you've already located by, say, the internet or in the newspaper ... then it's more purposeful."
Auckland pyschologist Sara Chatwin agrees. "I always come back to planning ... so that you don't feel pressured and you don't make stupid decisions when you're under pressure. It does sound finicky, and suggests that you've got OCD. But it probably helps in the long run. Then you won't get to February and think 'where did all that money go?"'
Which is to say, in the crafty, psychological fight for your cash, it is you, quite literally, who holds all the cards - and only you can keep them in your purse or wallet.