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Death–defying handbags

Death–defying handbags

Eve Poole reflects on the psychology behind the annual Black Friday frenzy. 22/11/2018

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On the Black Friday after 9/11, I was stopped outside Saks Fifth Avenue by a New Yorker who wanted to thank me for coming over that Thanksgiving. I showed him the particularly splendid pink handbag I had just purchased, and told him I’d been sent by London to boost their economy. Which I recall I did in some style.

At the time I viewed my Black Friday spending as an act of solidarity with a deeply shocked city: I had spent Thanksgiving with someone who had been in one of the towers that day. But if you know your anthropology, you may know that what we were all doing that particular Black Friday was trying to defeat death. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that we have a very real and deep–seated fear of dying, which manifests itself in strategies to prove we are alive and somehow immortal. We buy stuff to shore up our material reality in order to make that reality feel more substantial. Buying the right stuff also wins us approval from our peer group, which makes us feel alive. Further, the activity of shopping itself momentarily distracts us from contemplating the terror of our own inevitable death.

While bricks–and–mortar shopping may help to contain our anxiety, the promises of consumerism are of course illusory. Consumerism only works if we continually and pathologically crave the novelty that renders our very last purchase instantly obsolete. It is not in the market’s interest for anything to satisfy us, lest the wheels of commerce grind to a halt. And in our generation, the genius of consumerism has found its zenith in the smartphone and social media. Now we can shop on our devices 24×7 and the pinging of likes feeds our perpetual need for peer feedback. Until they don’t like us, or we can’t keep up. Then we loathe ourselves and long for death. The tragic rise in self–harming is the logical outcome of ubiquitous smartphone use amongst teenagers.

McGuire and Raleigh’s famous study on vervet monkeys suggests a chemical explanation for this. Their experiments found that high–ranking male vervets had nearly twice as much serotonin in their blood as those ranking lower in the social hierarchy.[1] If an alpha male was displaced by a challenger, his serotonin levels would plummet, until he was able to re–assert his status in the troop. This is broadly what happens when someone buys the latest ‘thing.’

When their social group signals their approval, they get a burst of serotonin, and this becomes addictive. If they don’t keep ‘on top’ they will quite literally feel depressed. McGuire and Raleigh’s research showed the only other way to crash vervet serotonin was to maroon a senior monkey with only a mirror for company. In a selfie–obsessed age it is no wonder that social media is having such a deleterious effect on mental health. Facebook is like a vast troop of vervet monkeys, giving us instant and repeated feedback about our status in our social group. If we don’t get affirmation, we suffer the same fate as the monkey with the mirror, and start feeling anxious.

Perhaps Black Friday, with its connotations of Good Friday, is more aptly named than we might have supposed. Pondering death and consumerism in the shadow of the cross provides one answer to our predicament. The sociologist and theologian Peter Berger argued that only religion has the narrative force to make cognitive, emotional and moral sense of the human condition. He calls this the ‘Sacred Canopy’, and of all religions, Christianity is best–placed, because in our narrative Good Friday ultimately leads to the death of death. A community of immortals is uniquely placed to see consumerism for the empty promise that it is, and to bend desire away from Mammon back towards God.

But while we are all busy wrestling with our own particular angel, we as a community could still mobilise now. The Good News for those who subscribe to the sacred canopy is not that in heaven we will all have Nike trainers, but that our need for them will simply evaporate, because our desire will find its fulfilment in God. We will be finally home. We will know that we are truly loved and special, and that our lives on earth were important to God.

But why wait until we are dead? What is stopping us loving the world’s anxious teenagers so alluringly that they do not need to go shopping all the time? Why are we allowing the lonely to get lost online, while we have communities waiting to welcome them? And why can’t we boost everyone around us by affirming them every day in our lives?

There is space underneath our sacred canopy. Not just for those who buy into our logic, but for anyone who needs shelter. The Black Friday frenzy is an annual reminder that those we see building walls of stuff around themselves are not evil, just lost. And we can help them find their way home by providing wholesome alternatives to – albeit splendid – pink handbags.

[1] McGuire M.T., Raleigh M.J. (1987) Serotonin, Social Behaviour, and Aggression in Vervet Monkeys. In: Olivier B., Mos J., Brain P.F. (eds) Ethopharmacology of Agonistic Behaviour in Animals and Humans. Topics in the Neurosciences (Neuronal Control of Bodily Function: Basic and Clinical Aspects), vol 7. Springer, Dordrecht

Image by PopTika under a Shutterstock licence. 

Eve Poole

Eve Poole

Dr Eve Poole is the Third Church Estates Commissioner for England, and Chairman of the Board of Governors at Gordonstoun. She has a BA from Durham, an MBA from Edinburgh, and a PhD in theology and capitalism from Cambridge. She is the author of several books, most recently Buying God: Theology and Consumerism. 



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Posted 22 November 2018

Capitalism, Christianity, Economy, Physchology


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