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How Advertising Manipulates Our “Caveman” Brains (& How to Resist)

Timessquareaddress It is becoming increasingly clear that widespread consumption is wrecking havoc on the planet. But, if it’s making us happier then perhaps it’s worth the compromise, some argue. Strangely, that doesn’t appear to be the case, either. The spreading westernized belief that “more” possessions equates to more happiness hasn’t panned out. In fact, statistically, the First World now has more depression, alcoholism, crime, anxiety, obesity and overall dissatisfaction with life than was reported 50 years ago. What if “more” isn’t “more” in terms of consumption? Recent research is now shedding light on the phenomenon.

These studies suggest that our Stone Age brains, or what scientists refer to as the “primitive” brain is evolved to want more, but not necessarlily to ENJOY more. For example, Brain scans by Emory University revealed that the reward-chemical dopamine is released when we spot a product and consider buying it. Interestingly, only the anticipation releases dopamine. After the item is bought, the high often evaporates within minutes, and the purchaser may be indifferent to having one more item or even suffer from “buyer’s remorse”.

Last year Bonn researchers used brain scanning to show that humans don’t want lots of stuff, so much as they want MORE stuff than others. This is a confusing, scarcity paradigm that we share with monkey’s and other primates. The study found that whether or not people made big paychecks, for example, was much less of a motivating factor than whether they made MORE than their coworkers. In other words, winning the arbitrary “competition” appears to be more important than the reward itself.

John Naish, author of the forthcoming book “Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More”, eloquently ponders the predicament of a “civilized” society living in such a paradoxical state.

Our primitive brains…got us down from the trees and around the world, through ice ages, famines, plagues and disasters, into our unprecedented era of abundance. But they never had to evolve an instinct that said, ‘enough’.”

Instead, our wiring constantly, subliminally urges us: “Want. More. Now.” Western civilisation wisely reined in this urge for thousands of years with an array of cultural conventions, from Aristotle’s Golden Mean (neither too much, nor too little) to the Edwardian table-saying: “I have reached an elegant sufficiency and anything additional would be superfluous’.”

But he warns that our culture of consumerism has ditched these lofty ideals to our own detriment. Our primitive desires are constantly being “pinged” into overdrive by a sophisticated system that grows more subtle and clever by the moment.

“It got us to the point where we created everything we need as a basis for contentment. Now it’s rushing us past the tipping point, beyond which getting more makes life worse rather than better. And it’s making our brains respond more weirdly than ever. Our old wiring may condemn us to keep striving ever harder until finally we precipitate our dissatisfied demise.”

He advises that more of would find greater satisfaction if we learn “the comfortable art of ‘enough’ in this overstuffed world”. Hewarns that advertisers take advantage of our primitive wiring. One big thing to watch out for is subconsciously wanting things due to celebrity endorsements. In theory, we understand that they’re just being paid to say they love something, but in practice our brains aren’t wired to really differentiate.

Research shows that one of the most powerful ways to stimulate more buying is celebrity endorsement. Neurologists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam report that our ability to weigh desirability and value doesn’t function normally if an item is endorsed by a well-known face. This lights up the brain’s dorsal claudate nucleus, which is involved in trust and learning. Areas linked to longer-term memory storage also fire up. Our minds overidentify with celebrities because we evolved in small tribes. If you knew someone, then they knew you. If you didn’t attack each other, you were probably pals.

Our minds still work this way, giving us the idea that the celebs we keep seeing are our acquaintances. And we want to be like them, because we’ve evolved to hate being out of the in-crowd. Brain scans show that social rejection activates brain areas that generate physical pain, probably because in prehistory tribal exclusion was tantamount to a death sentence. And scans by the National Institute of Mental Health show that when we feel socially inferior, two brain regions become more active: the insula and the ventral striatum. The insula is involved with the gut-sinking sensation you get when you feel that small. The ventral striatum is linked to motivation and reward. To stave off the pain of feeling second-rate, we feel compelled to barricade ourselves behind evermore social acquisitions. That kept our ancestors competitively stretching for the next rung of social evolution, but in modern society it has us locked into an endless cycle of disappointment.

Fortunately, there are ways to go about PROOFING YOUR BRAIN.

1.    Change your mindset to “postmore” by challenging culture’s ingrained assumption that “more” of everything is automatically better.

2.    Grow your gratitude. Our poor, starved, frozen ancestors would cry tears of joy if they suddenly landed in our culture of abundance. Fostering our appreciation of this bounty can also block the consumerist “cool” pressure to deride so many of our fine, workable possessions as “so last year”.

3.    Be enough. We’re constantly told that we aren’t rich enough, glam enough, cool enough, networked enough, etc. This has a powerful insidious effect on our primitive, socially competitive brain circuits. It’s like a toxic substance that turns rational brains into needy toddlers wanting “more, more, more!

Posted by Rebecca Sato.

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Related posts:
The Joneses Paradox: Brain-Scan Study Rewrites Economic Theory
The Consumer Paradox: Scientists Find that Low Self-Esteem and Materialism Goes Hand in Hand

*Portions of this post are extracts from the forthcoming book “Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More” to be published January 24, 2008.



your suggestion for becoming "postmore" are at least more sophisticated than the dreadfully ignorant premises underlying the research and the book that you mention above..

it is appalling how dumb science is in the west, compared to what is already available in the world since nearly forever

the structures of mind are clearly laid out in advaita vedanta, desire and self and ego are all well explained in eastern spiritual practices

it is only the ignorance of the western model about the self and consciousness that is responsible for both the insane consumption and the insane analysis based upon some concept of primitive brain

man, i wish the west would grow up, your adolescence has been one of the most destructive forces ever unleashed upon the earth

and now that i have vented my irritation, if you would like to seriously discuss this, please indicate so

thank you for this post

enjoy, gregory


the adolescence of the west, as you called it, is due to our many years of an extremely good life. The fact that the people in Europe and USA is living in democratic, wealthy, war-free countries for so many years has led us to the extreme of wanting more even when we don't need it. Our grandparents are not like these.

The extreme state of poverty that most people live in the east doesn't allow them the freedom to do our excesses. Not to mention the various communist regimes...

However, Japan is going through the same as us.

Now, I must agree with you about our ignorance of the self. We don't have a culture of improving ourselves as persons. We do improve ourselves as students and workers, but not as persons.

By the way, I'm just trying to be constructive and if you disagree with my ideas please explain why ;)

And sorry for some grammatical and/or semantical errors. I'm in the process of improving my English.


This article may be true but if we didn't strive for more, we probably wouldn't evolve and society would be left in a frozen state.

Lucas, that used to be the case, but as the article suggests many of us have now reached a point of "saturation" where our drive for "more" isn't necessarily leading to a better lifestyle in ways that really matter, but our brains don't get it. Society isn't wanting "more" of the things that actually matter at this point-like wisdom, intelligence and a greater sense of humanity--we just want more STUFF. I also just read a recent large survey that found teenage girls and young woman would rather be "hot" than intelligent by a vast majority. That's why so many are undergoing plastic surgery at an ever younger age--they want to look "more" like the plastic, ditzy celebrities they idolize. That's sad, but it's a product of our consumerist society. I'm not saying it's all bad, but it sure is worth thinking about. Maybe the next step in our evolution is to realize these limitations for what they are. Society could evolve just fine if we turned our attention and energy to the pressing matters around the globe instead of spending 5 hours a day watching "reality" shows on tv.

one understanding going through the world now is the destructive value of ego

whether national, religion, consumption, ego is killing the planet

personally, to me, this is valuable and necessary, because it is only in the recognition that self-transcendence can be possible

"more" will turn out to be "more conscious" rather than have "more stuff"

we are just in the middle of the journey, nowhere near the end

enjoy, all

thanks for a nice topic

It is not true that the eastern world learnt to rein in desire for more due to poverty. The scriptures like Veda and Vedanta that originated more than 2500 years ago defined desire as “more and more”. They counseled against impulse for material accumulation and urged for understanding the workings of self to find lasting happiness. For that, the art of meditation and yoga was taught for centuries to people. There is a fascinating new book on human nature and happiness: title ” Rewiring the Brain – Living without Stress and Anxiety through the Power of Consciousness” available on and

It is not true that the eastern world learnt to rein in desire for more due to poverty. The scriptures like Veda and Vedanta that originated more than 2500 years ago defined desire as “more and more”. They counseled against impulse for material accumulation and urged for understanding the workings of self to find lasting happiness. For that, the art of meditation and yoga was taught for centuries to people. There is a fascinating new book on human nature and happiness: title ” Rewiring the Brain – Living without Stress and Anxiety through the Power of Consciousness” available on and

Despite all the great philosophical texts, India is pretty darn consumerist. Example:

I suddenly feel sorry for myself.

yes, the hunger for material gain is world wide, natural too... and leads to spirituality, given time, because the material stuff doesn't satisfy..

so all is well...

we in our own lives find the only choice we have is how do we want to live...

so, given what we know, we do what we do

all added up, we are the world


The 10 Commandments address every issue of over consumption.

!) Have no God's before God. That includes Gucci, Vipers, Homes and Kids.
2) Bow or serve to no graven image. God claims to be a jealous God here. Cars, homes, art, animals, etc. are not to be served as if a god.
3) Don't swear His name.
4) No work on the Seventh Day.
5) Honor your mother & father.
6) Don't murder.
7) Don't commit adultery.
8) Don't steal.
9) Don't lie or gossip.
even with all they have, they covet the wealth of others desire, yearn for, crave, have one's heart set on, want, wish for, long for, hanker after/for, hunger after/for, thirst for.

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