The ‘Fleabag’ ef­fect now dic­tates how we shop

The National - News - - OPINION - JUSTIN THOMAS Justin Thomas is a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Zayed Univer­sity

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.

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

Psy­chol­o­gists and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als have long been in­ter­ested in con­sumer be­hav­iour

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.

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