Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

The 'Fleabag' effect is dictating our shopping habits

When, how and why we shop has interested psychologists and mental health professionals for more than a century

Record-breaking sales of plastic storage containers were reported earlier this year and dubbed the "Marie Kondo effect" after the Netflix decluttering series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. AP
Record-breaking sales of plastic storage containers were reported earlier this year and dubbed the "Marie Kondo effect" after the Netflix decluttering series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. AP

As a child, I became obsessed with owning a Pocket Pac Man, a handheld video game that was all the rage in the 1980s. Unable to afford it, I would regularly visit the store to gaze at it through the window, occasionally plucking up the courage to ask the sales assistant for yet another demo.

The forces at play behind my overwhelming desire have been the subject of intense scrutiny by psychologists for decades. According to a recent retail report, our shopping habits are being shaped by popular television series. Department store John Lewis said there had been a 25 per cent increase in the sale of flat caps, the kind worn by the character Thomas Shelby in the hit BBC series Peaky Blinders. Meanwhile there has been a 66 per cent increase in the sales of black jumpsuits, similar to the ones worn by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the award-winning show Fleabag. And a rise in the sale of retro-style slim fit jeans was attributed to the popularity of the Netflix series Stranger Things. The small screen is having a big impact on consumer behaviour. The "Fleabag effect" is real.

Humans instinctively imitate others. Some of our consumer quests are less about things we buy, and more about a deep-rooted desire for admiration, adoration and a sense of self-worth

But this is not a new phenomenon. When, how and why we shop has interested psychologists and mental health professionals for more than a century. Early in the 19th century, Emil Kraepelin, the father of modern psychiatry, wrote about oniomania, a type of compulsive shopping with no-regard for debt. He also wrote about kleptomania: impulsive stealing, typically from high-end department stores with an absence of criminal intent.

In addition to exploring problems associated with consumer behaviour, psychologists have profoundly shaped what we buy. Through the engineering of our desires, we begin to imagine needs we never knew we had. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote: "We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of." In 1929, Bernays ran a covert campaign linking cigarette smoking with women's emancipation; cigarettes became "torches of freedom". To the delight of the US tobacco industry, many American women subsequently took up the habit.

John Watson, known as the father of behavioural psychology, brought science to consumerism. He rose to become a vice president at J Walter Thompson, one of the world's largest advertising agencies. Watson was a firm believer in the psychologist's ability to reliably shape and influence human behaviour. In his book Behaviourism, Watson wrote: "Men are built, not born."

Today's small screen, however, spares us the advertisements or at least give us the option to skip them. Yet the small screen still impacts consumer behaviour. For an answer to why this might be, we can turn to another influential psychologist, Albert Bandura.

The Peaky Blinders and Fleabag effects can be explained by what Bandura called social learning theory. In a nutshell, humans are highly mimetic. We instinctively imitate other people. Copying is especially likely when the model's behaviour is admired or rewarded. Heroes and even anti-heroes are typically adored and wearing a flat cap or a jumpsuit are easy choices to imitate.

Perhaps, then, some of our consumer quests are less about things we buy and more about a deep-rooted desire for admiration, adoration and a sense of self-worth. Psychologists who study problematic consumer behaviour would agree with this analysis. Compulsive buying disorder (CBD), a condition characterised by irresistible urges to buy things, is also frequently associated with depression. One explanation for the depression-CBD link is the mood-repair hypothesis. This is the idea that we self-medicate on merchandise and engage in excessive consumer behaviour in an attempt to keep negative feelings at bay. In many cases, this can lead to crippling debt.

Even if we manage to remain debt-free, excessive shopping has another potentially harmful psychological consequence: clutter. Things tend to mount over time, especially if we feel reluctant to rid ourselves of old stuff. When this behaviour is extreme, a mental health professional could view us as being on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum and diagnose a hoarding disorder. There is, it seems, a TV fix for that too. John Lewis reported record-breaking sales of plastic storage containers earlier this year and dubbed it the "Marie Kondo effect" after the Netflix decluttering series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo - although whether compulsive shoppers actually follow through by purging their possessions and filling those container remains unknown.

I was gifted the Pocket Pac Man on my 12th birthday, after dropping a few thousand hints. The device was everything I had imagined it would be. Even the silver box it came in was cool. Did it make me happy? Of course - for a few hours. Eventually, though, all the positive effects wore off and the Pocket Pac Man became just another piece of colourful plastic clutter in my childhood bedroom.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: October 20, 2019 06:41 PM

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