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From the UK’s Telegraph (& via the NZ Herald) comes the attention-grabbing headline: ‘Finding a bargain feels as good as sex‘. Well, I’m a fan of a good bargain (mmmm, coats…) so of course I read on.

And was, as usual with such headlines, disappointed.

According to the Telegraph, “Researchers have found that bargains make us so deliriously happy that the brain is turned on to the same level excitement that it gets from sex.” 

We’re told that this was done by measuring activity in various areas of the brains of 50 volunteers while they carried out ‘acitivities including shopping and watching an erotic film.’ (Presumably they were all over 18…) But I’m not so sure that they were actually shopping as the story goes on to say that the university researchers ”used specialist equipment to monitored eye movements and emotional responses in the body to a series of everyday consumer products in 50 volunteers.” It’s hard to check what was actually done as a) the preliminary data were apparently presented in the ‘trade’ journal The Grocer (to which we do not, alas, have an institutional subscription; I must see if the library would rectify that…) & b) there’s nothing about it in the U of Westminster’s own press releases webpage. But let’s see what we can make of it.

It sounds as if the volunteers were fitted with headsets that tracked eye movements; the researchers may also have used electrodes to measure brain activity but that’s not clear from what we have here. Few people would be bold enough to walk down the main street thus outfitted – & the stress associated with doing this would generate anomalous results in any case – your eyes would be all over the place checking on people’s reaction to your ensemble! From the news story it looks more as if they were presented with images of ‘specials’ advertising, or else a series of actual products. And also with naughty films – which apparently generate ‘excitement’ of between 5 & 7 on a 10-point scale. (So – contrary to the initial teaser statement - the volunteers’ response to actual sexual activity wasn’t recorded! Well, that would be a bit trickier to achieve, wouldn’t it?)

A score of 10, we’re told, is associated with major trauma & ‘could be dangerous’.Well, hang on a moment – are the ‘pleasure’ & ‘pain’ regions of the brain the same? If not, then this scale is meaningless as it’s conflating different things. (And there’s some research suggesting that such responses are segregated into different parts of the brain.)

Anyway, back to the chase… Apparently the volunteers recorded a score of 5.8 on viewing a Marmite promotion that included a free offer for a children’s book. A Wallace&Gromit freebie did rather well too. All I can say to that is that if the Marmite/kids’ book combo turned them on so much, they must have had remarkably unexciting personal lives… (And this leads me to wonder about the age distribution of the volunteers – would someone without children get all that excited about this stuff?)

However, as the ‘research’ was commissioned by the Institute of Promotional Marketing, I do suspect a certain amount of bias. They were, after all, interested in finding ways to ensure that shoppers’ eyes focused on clients’ products for at least the few seconds needed to make a decision about buying that product. If ‘specials’ do that, then goody for the retailer, but do we really need to pretend that the ‘excitement’ of finding a bargain at the supermarket equates to the brain arousal associated with activities involving consenting adults?