Scary Thought: A Treatment for Impulse Buying


Here’s a thought that would terrify many marketers… what if consumers prone to impulsive behavior decided to take a pill to quiet those impulses? While clearly lack of impulse control is a serious issue for some individuals and can lead to extreme behavior, marketers of everything from checkout lane mints to Porsches depend to some degree on consumers acting impulsively. Wall Street Journal editor Jason Zweig is interviewed by Morningstar’s Christine Benz below:

Zweig is author of the fascinating guide to the emerging science of neuroeconomics, Your Money and Your Brain. While his focus is mainly on investment behavior, I have to believe impulsive purchases have a lot in common with impulsive financial decisions, since each purchase is itself a financial decision. Zweig notes,

One that I’ve been sort of paying a lot of attention to out of the corner of my eye is what’s come to be called genoeconomics, which is a study of essentially how our DNA interacts with our financial decision making, and scientists have already identified several genes that seem to be implicated in controlling impulsive behaviors.

So that down the road one of the hopes is that if people can come up with perhaps a drug treatment or a behavioral treatment, you may be able to identify people who have a genetic predisposition toward being impulsive, for example. So that you may eventually get to the point where you can help people save for the future and set aside their impulsive reluctance to set money aside.

Will there be pills and supplements that promise “better decision-making” in the future? Could that force some marketers to shift from emotional pitches to more rational appeals? It’s interesting to speculate, but I suspect we are many years away from development of such pharmaceuticals, and widespread adoption seems unlikely even if they were shown to be safe and effective.

Full interview text is here.

  1. Ramon says

    I think in the long run it will be better for us humans. Businesses will begin to focus more on what actually “matters”, and focus less on hyping things up. It will be difficult for businesses to change, but as the saying goes, “change or die”.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Ramon, I agree that the world would certainly be a different place if we were all on impulse control drugs…


  2. Rich and Co. says

    This will have to happen:
    – These self-harming behaviors are now diagnosable brain impairments
    – The government (all of us) and society in general ultimately pays the price for individual self-harming behavior, e.g., over-eating, addictions, extreme political behavior, bad investments/banking practices (the Wall St, meltdown)
    – Institutional approaches have maxed-out. Now it’s down to helping individuals manage their self-harming behavior.

    Why this will not happen for a long time — if ever:
    – The science isn’t eve close to being there. Look at the current impossibility of effecting something as “simple” as drug.booze addiction
    – The brain and societies will fight it to the death. What is the compliance of medical treatment for clear psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia? Or any medical conditions? Very low.

    No, our self-harming impulses are built into the deepest parts of of our genes and brains. Literally.

  3. Steven H says

    Pills to treat impulse? I can see some nasty side effects…people might become lazy and lethargic. As Rich and Co states, the science is far away on this one. It would be an interesting change in marketing, but we can’t ever 100% rid of emotionally-influenced behavior (nor should we).

  4. Brendon Clark says

    Impulse control pills. Hmmm.

    For starters, impulse control disorders are well documented: stealing, gambling, fire-lighting, violence etc. Then there’s the personality disorder component of something like BPD.

    Still, research indicates low serotinin, so docs will start with the SSRIs. Is the impulsivity fun and kicking off the mesolimbic dopamine chain? Kill it with an opioid blocker. Naltrexone is an old favorite. If it’s violent, throw in some Risperdal, maybe a horse-sized load of Epilim.

    Yep, meds can be used for anything. I would have said that impulsiveness isn’t particularly straightforward, and meds won’t take into account the personality aspects, so something like BPD needs a healthy dose of DBT alongside any meds. If it’s personality like this, it’s something you are, not something you have.

    Additionally, less impulsive doesn’t necessarily mean great decisions. It means fewer rash ones.

    And emotional contributions to decision making?

    Upshot? It’s a little reductionist no? Better to teach than to prescribe.

  5. Roger Dooley says

    >> Better to teach than to prescribe.

    I agree, Brendon. I have a feeling that a “good decision pill” would be quite elusive.


  6. Rich and Co. says

    You can’t teach away inherited, genetic brain impairments. Nor can you teach many people anything past 20 something.

    It’s not a “good decision pill” that is being studied, it’s a “avoid very bad behaviors” treatments.

    You can’t teach impaired people much, that’s (partially) why/how they are impaired. People have always been afraid of new medical treatments.

    Inherited dopamine receptor deficits, likely D2 receptors, drives impulsive/compulsive behavior not serotonin deficits.

    Good trick for remembering: A dopamine impaired brain can’t say “no”, a seortonin impaired brain can’t say “yes.”

    DBT has been found to be only (somewhat) useful on very specific kinds of mental illnesses. Not bi-polar.

  7. Brendon B Clark says

    SSRI’a are commonly prescribed for impulsive and compulsive disorders because they are seen as having affective features. Whether they should be is a different issue.

    Consequently, I agree with the D2 position, but disagree about the teaching issue. It’s erroneous to assume that genetics is the sole cause and medication the sole answer of impairments, or that people past their twenties can’t learn much.

    In the context of personality disorders, BPD is borderline personality disorder, a good candidate for DBT, not Bipolar disorder.


  8. Rich and Co. says

    We see growing evidence to the contrary of the above points. The objections seem largely personal ideology. Never heard of serotonin treatment for impulsive/compulsive disease.

    The idea of adult education seems to be largely a pop myth. However, a massively appealing one supported by practically every socio-cultural institution. We work in financial marketing and it doe not work. Quite the contrary.

    As always, the challenge is conscious language/socio-cultural constructs, of the moment, vs. actual behavioral drivers.

    The inherited genetic potentialities of the brain processes and their impairments exists, in every cell, throughout life. In most cases, like all physiological functions, they deteriorate with age. Individual differences, of course.

    The idea that inherited physiological/brain circuit functions, genetic, and environmental, factors can be “changed” or modified with language/talk (PowerPoint?) is simply quaint based on current brain and medical science.

    If an impaired person could control their behavior with self-talk, they wouldn’t be impaired. The idea of the right incentives is also being shown to be largely folklore. Real world incentives are instantly “perishable” variable, multi-dimensional and largely unconscious.

    If only,…

  9. Jody says

    Who makes the decision as to what is an impaired brain when we are talking about controlling impulses.
    If it is self elected than the issues raised by Rich and co are quite relevant, who will choose to take a drug to control a behaviour that they are quite happy living with.

    Who will choose whether someone is simply voluptious versus an over-eater if that persons health is not at an adverse risk and they are happy with how they are?

    I don’t think the traders on Wall St will take kindly to being likened with having a behavioural problem that needs drug treatment. If more people thought there was something wrong with their behaviour they would be seeking an intervention now and not waiting until a drug is developed at some point in the future.

    Its an interesting topic but one fraught with social ideals and danger.

  10. Rich and Co. says

    Indeed. New science always presents very tough challenges. Hopefully with the promise of better lives as well.

    Let’s take a simple example: Fast food + brain impairment = obesity epidemic = chronic debilitating later life chronic diseases = health care funding crisis.

    What do we do? Treat cause? Treat symptom? Taxpayers, just pay the accelerating medical costs for later life medical care? Other ideas?

    What’s changing, at an accelerating pace, is the scientific, peer-reviewed evidence that:
    – Self-harming behavior is largely mechanical and not accessible to conscious control
    – The personal and social costs from these behaviors are being made explicit and are growing.

    Now the majority of socio-cultural (pop) ideology, as well as the individual’s own impaired cognitive capabilities, will “fight to the death” against these realities but they not only remain but are getting more obvious and having worse consequences.

    The global financial meltdown is an example. GM bankruptcy, BP spill, addictions, add to the list.

    Like most medical conditions, the diagnosis and treatment of brain illnesses are fairly clear — and will just be getting better and better. (Symptom management that is. Cures are way, way out of reach)

    However, the vast majority of social and personal forces fight against it. Most people refuse to go to the doctor, an fear response rules, and take prescribe medication. It’s predictable.

    How long has it taken for the world to accept that our planet is not the center of the universe? Most still don’t.

  11. Roberts Howard says

    We have learned that attempts to sell on Thanksgiving day are invariably dismal. Those failures have been laid to eating the traditional turkey, a meal containing high levels of tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin. That, we are informed, reduces impulsive behavior.

    By Black Friday the tryptophan out of the system and the impulse buyer returns.

  12. Jessica_Just a Student says

    Sure, over-impulsive behavior is bad, but the emergence of this pill or ‘supplement’ raises an interesting question for who decides who needs a pill like this. What constitutes being too impulsive? The impulsive tendencies of substance abusers or gamblers are problematic but can’t therapy be just as effective a medical treatment? Magic pills that fix our moods are becoming a major problem for the following reasons.

    a. Wrongful diagnosis are too common because doctors don’t fully understand these new medications are inclined to prescribe regardless because of incentives given by the drug providers.
    b. The drug literature provided by pharmaceutical companies are known for pushing unproven benefits not approved by the FDA.
    c. More people are believing that a pill can fix anything and humanity is suffering.
    d. The FDA passes medications which are later found to cause more harm than good, causing massive recalls, bans, and lawsuits.

    From an Orwellian standpoint one can see that the slightest amount of abnormal behavior, which goes against the prescribed flow of things, is liable to be deemed destructive behavior. Definitions of what defines ‘normal, healthy behavior’ are now being controlled by ambitious drug companies. Pretty soon calling off work on a Friday to take an impulsive getaway will be considered a negative impulsive decision. What’s more, any eccentricities in personality are being snubbed out, creating a nation of corporately-governed automatons.

    Americans take far too many drugs for dubious or exaggerated ailments. Our country is becoming a nation of people dependent on pills they don’t fully understand and whose full effects are not yet understood. The government does not properly sanction these companies and the drug companies continue to cash in on the population looking for a quick fix.

  13. Rich and Co. says

    The challenge is that:
    – Individual impulsive/compulsive self-harming behaviors…
    – can do damage beyond the individual – say taking out a mortgage one can’t afford
    – Increasingly then, all of us (our government) have become the “lender of last resort” on these mistakes.

    If only, the individual and their families suffered the consequences it would be an easier matter. Sadly, that is no longer true.

    Society always progresses by more closely defining what is acceptable individual behavior — for the good of the whole. For example, blood feuds used to be considered an individual right and still are in many cultures.

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