Why I Buy Things I Don’t Like (Oh, the Potato Chips…)

When I buy a bag of potato chips at the store, half of it disappears before I even get home.  The rest is gone before the day is done.  I bet some of you know what I mean?

Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal.  A harmless little vice.   But, there’s a problem:   I don’t really like them anymore.  In fact, they often make me sick (it’s something in the oil, I think).    Yet, I still buy them.

Last night, I was reading about automatic behaviors, especially the act of buying food.  And I found some insight into what’s going on.  Ironically, I was eating a bag of chips at the time.  They were stale, had no salt, and tasted like wood shims.[1]   I ate them anyway.   Admittedly, chips are a pretty trivial example of automatic buying  (I’ll get more serious later), but it’s bedeviled me.

Many moons ago, I really enjoyed eating chips.   I moved to a new house, and as I checked out the local grocery stores, I discovered where the chips were.   I got them, ate them, enjoyed.   Repeat.  I quickly associated the sight of the store with “get chips” and “salty crunch”.  I got the routine down pat: enter store, go to right aisle,  pick up a bag, etc.   I.e., I built a habit.   

And then it started to go bad.  I’ll save you the nasty details, but let’s just say that something in the chips no longer agreed with my stomach.   But, whenever I see the grocery store, I’m sorely tempted to go in (and often find myself eating them when I know, I really know, it’s stupid).

The lesson:

  • Wanting doesn’t necessarily mean liking.  “Want” is what your brain drives you to do.  “Like” is what you feel when you do it.[2]  In my case, I learned to want something I liked (chips). But, the liking went away, and the want was still there.[3]
  • A habitual want is often triggered by a cue in the environment – like the sight of the grocery store.[4]   The brain then automatically undertakes a learned routine to get what was rewarding.  
  • Habitually wanting something, at a brain chemistry level, does all sorts of strange things to your perceptions.   We all know this in the case of drugs and addiction, but it’s true for lesser “non-addiction” behaviors too.   For example, a habitual want focuses your attention on the cue – and it’s immensely difficult to ignore it.  It screams at you.[5]

Stepping back from my potato chip experience and getting a bit more serious, habitual buying is common in people’s daily lives.  Even beyond “compulsive shopping”, and “shopping addiction” (with the associated issues of self-worth, social pressure, etc.), it’s an everyday fact of life.   Justin, the hero of last week’s blog post, mentioned how he would buy the newspaper everyday, even though he no longer read it (he got an iPad instead).  When I was a student, I’d blow a major part of my income on restaurants I saw on the way back home (that  weren’t very good…). The money adds up, and can destroy your plans to control your finances.   

Like any habit, there are ways to counteract these automatic purchases.[6]  Here are some tips:

  • First and foremost, avoid the trigger if  possible (avoid the chips aisle).  
  • Second, rewire the routine.   Find something else that is just as rewarding, and responds to the same cue, but requires a different behavior.   Sure, pass by the grocery store; but intentionally build up a habit of reward yourself with something else that doesn’t make you sick!
  • Pick ONE thing that really bugs you, that you have the desire to change, and focus on that.  Make that work, then build on the success. It takes a lot of work to consciously override a single automatic behavior.[7]






[1] Thinking about the wood shims reminds me of one of the classic research studies in automatic eating behavior – Brain Wansink’s study of giving people nasty stale popcorn in movie theaters.   Recipients ate it anyway, responding to cues in their environment.   See http://www.mindlesseating.org/.

[2] See Berridge (2009) on distinction between “like” and “want” in the context of food. 

[3] There’s a technique to override the pleasure one feels from eating a bag of chips (or eating anything) – you pair it with something really unpleasant.   If you get sick after eating an otherwise great new meal at a restaurant, you actually won’t enjoy that food again in the future.  (The food is the same, the pleasure is gone).   BUT.  This works for new experiences.   It doesn’t work well with things you’ve experienced many times (like eating chips, or ice cream, etc.); the prior association is too strong.  

[4] Duhigg (2012) has a good non-technical overview of habit formation.  See also Nir Eyal’s “Desire Engine” at nirandfar.com  (he has a book coming out soon, that looks quite relevant as well).

[5] Berridge calls this habitual wanting “incentive salience”, since it affects what we perceive and how powerful the incentive is.

[6] Following last week’s post, just telling someone to be aware of what they are doing is often ineffective.  

[7] Chip and Dan Heath, in Switch, develop a great metaphor for this – the Rider of an Elephant trying to pull the reigns to steer his steed. You can do it for a while, but can’t do it all the time.  It’s too much work.   See Haidt (2006) for the initial development of that metaphor.