Monday, March 2, 2009

Rationalization: A New Model For Our "Collective Consumer Conscience"

I'm not usually one for chick lit. But when I read an interview with the author of Confessions of a Shopaholic, talking about how the novel is not so much about shopping per se, but about buying what you can't afford, I figured I had to make an exception.

I'm glad I did, because let me tell you, this woman is onto something. What she's onto is that you don't have to be an addict, you don't have to be a psychological weakling, you don't have to be a candidate for rehab, to continually make decisions that are clearly in your long term worst interest. The phenomenon of rationalization is far more common than that of addiction, and aptly describes pretty much all of us.

Many people are making many such decisions every day. Up to now, the only model we had for such decisions was the model of addiction: you must be a kind of addict if you continue to do something knowing it is bad for you. Hence: shopping addict, sex addict, "chocoholic," etc. etc.

But the great thing about COAS is that, despite having "shopaholic" in the title, the book presents a different and much more plausible model for self-destructive behavior. This is based on "rationalization": we tell ourselves a story for why doing the stupid thing is better, just this once, just right now, just on this occasion, than doing the sensible thing.

Of course, it's not new to notice that people rationalize. But I think Kinsella may be the first to give a realistic account of just how such rationalizing goes, for most of us, all the time, now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

This matters a lot. Because it's one thing to consider a person performing a rationalization that you, yourself, would never consider. But it's another thing altogether to consider a person making mental moves that you yourself make every day, or that your friends make, or that your teenage kids drive you crazy with.

As I see it, Kinsella presents roughly three paradigms of rationalization. First, there's simple wishful thinking. Nothing new there, really: the confidence that your lottery win/new job/tax refund/publisher's clearinghouse check is going to come through just when you need it - pretty standard.

The second paradigm is the rise and fall of the grand scheme. As far as I can tell, this hasn't been pursued much in literature -- though as I've written about before, Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno is what I would call a canonical text in this domain. The idea here is that people only feel they can change their bad habits through the implementation of a bold new way of living, preferably adopted to great fanfare at a dramatic moment in life.

In COAS, the heroine, Becky, seeing she is in financial trouble, consults a book called Controlling Your Cash. She says on buying it, "Quite honestly, it's going to change my life." And indeed, the next morning Becky awakes, full of zeal, and makes a cheese sandwich for lunch, and wraps it in tinfoil. She is thrilled: wow, this is thrifty, easy, fun! Why doesn't everyone do this every day, she wonders?

Noon comes. The sandwich is soggy, and gross. Her friends are heaing out to get take out. Really, what would you do?

Happiness 1, Frugality 0. The grand scheme: always a f***ing disappointment.

But the most interesting and original paradigm Kinsella gives us is the "I deserve it" one. This isn't the old "because I'm worth it" of the L'Oreal ads. This is rather the idea that since denying one's self even a small amount takes such extraordinary energy and effort, naturally one needs a reward for having exercised any self-control whatsoever.

Becky does this again and again: after an afternoon of worrying about her finances, she feels she has earned a reward -- some clothes, a nice dinner, whatever -- despite the fact that the reward is going to cost more than what she's saved through worrying all day.

It's easy to dismiss such behavior as "stupid" or whatever, but recent research supports the view that active self-denial is an effort for people, and that it weighs them down (see "ego depletion," and also this blog post I wrote about it once before). What is special about our current consumer culture is that since things, and credit, are so easily available, every act of not buying stuff is an act of self-control, rather than an act of acquiescence in simply having no money.

So until you've actually maxed out your cards, it really is a depleting, and exhausting, act not to spend, and it's not surprising that at the end of it you feel you need a reward. Even one that undermines all your efforts.

The interesting thing about this third paradigm is that it's not at all restricted to shopping and spending. Twenty-first century western culture is all about choice, right? So no matter what your weakness is, the availability of all those choices means you have to exercise your self-control more than ever before. Whatever your particular mania is, we've got the environment to encourage you to rationalize about it.

I don't know what the answer is. But I do think conceptualizing the question in terms of rationalization rather than addiction is the right way to go. So next time you're tempted to say that you're an addict, why not use the language of rationalization instead? "Hi, I'm Becky, and I'm a shopping rationalizer." Not as catchy. But more accurate!

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