Shop ‘Til We Drop
Where did the universal mania for shopping originate? I suggest that its origins date back to the period in human evolution when we were all hunters and gatherers. Survival depended on scanning the forests and the bush for sightings of the next kill. While gathering required the endlessly scrutinous search for the next nut, the next berry, the next fruit, the next edible root.
That tireless search was fueled both by physical hunger and by an innate psychological hunger, a natural compulsion. Does this not explain why people—men and women—spend endless amounts of time trolling through catalogs and internet shopping sites? Is this not the most recently evolved form of hunting and gathering, the compulsion to seek and explore and ultimately pick the one object that meets a need or fulfills a desire?
With the shift from the nomadic lifestyle of early humans to the sedentary modus vivendi of modern humans, the acquisition of foods and products for home and vocational management was facilitated by markets. The Agora in ancient Athens is the legendary and iconic marketplace where vendors displayed their wares at stalls and where politics and community issues were discussed.
Pedlars and pushcarts took to the streets as cities expanded and markets moved more and more upscale until, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, department stores were invented. Markets on that scale became possible as ready-to-wear clothing entered into the industrial age. Population growth along with the development of an acquisitive middle class made merchandising on a grand scale possible.
Yet the stall and pushcart also achieved an elevated status with the emergence of boutiques and small stores that cater to select clientele and offer a specific and also select commodity.
Now with the advent of online shopping sites, this widening spread of choice and availability further expands the shopping opportunity. Even produce and packaged ready-to-prepare meals can be ordered online. Delivery services allow brick stores and restaurants to service clientele by phone or via the internet.
Shopping addictions do occur. When tied with another common human compulsion—gambling—that addiction is further fueled. Trolling through sites like eBay also evokes the ever-nascent thrill of gambling.
“Civilization has threatened our existence, if not materially, then morally, ethically, and even politically.”
The brain, as usual, is deeply implicated in the shopping/searching/seeking process that has fostered survival for eons and has now evolved into a mercantile presence in every human culture. Addiction (both shopping and gambling) becomes entrained through the reward system that is linked to the brain’s propensity for fostering compulsive behaviors (again a survival tactic).
Like so many of the brain components that evolved earlier than the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the reward circuitry can escape the management functions of the PFC and establishes a zone of relative independence that resists control by intention, conscious planning, and various cerebral efforts to curtain addictive behaviors.
In a sense, the cultural evolution of shopping to its present ever-expanding state has outpaced the earlier biological adaptation necessary for maintaining the effort to hunt and gather.
Civilization has threatened our existence, if not materially, then morally, ethically, and even politically. Humans have always divided themselves into social classes. Shopping has somewhat leveled that playing field by bolstering middle-class comforts. But shopping has also spun giant corporations and massively enriched a billionaire proprietor class of its own creation.
Shopping—has it become an anodyne to social despair? Is it eventually going to prove a farewell to equality? And ultimately is shopping to become a disguised perversion of pleasure?
Will we all become Amazonians?
And, finally, is social media turning into a resource for shopping for friends, sexual partners, political allies?
As the old addictive radio programs always ended: Stay tuned!