Maria Nemeth's SOS

The Shiny Object Syndrome: What it is, what it costs you, and what to do about it.

It goes like this: 

  • You’re tired after finishing a report that’s been due for a week and decide to give yourself a break. You open your email and see an ad for the latest iPhone with lenses that will take pictures practically in the dark. And it’s on sale!

You get excited. Suddenly more awake. Your heart beats a little faster. You just have to have it…and you press the button to complete the sale. 

  • You walk into a store that carries new portable wellness products and you see the perfect portable massage machine. Just right for your tired back. You have to have it! And ten minutes later it’s yours as you walk out of the store with it.
  • You’re watching tv and see your favorite non-profit station is having a fundraising campaign. If you donate a certain amount you’ll get the complete 12-DVD album of American Folksongs from 1900-1970. You just have to have it! Never mind that you haven’t used your DVD player for two years. Or that you haven’t listened to folk music for at least five years. That doesn’t matter right now. So you call the operator and boom! It’s yours.
  •  It’s the Holiday season. It’s dark and cold outside. You enter a department store. Here you see brightly-lit, colorful displays. You wander over to a scarf display and see one that’s just right for you. In fact, you have to get it! It will go with at least three outfits. And besides, it’s so colorful! Never mind that it’s expensive. Bam! It’s bought and paid for in less than 3 minutes.

Do any of these sound like you? If they don’t, think of one that does! We’ve all experienced something like this at some time in our lives. 

I call it the Shiny Object Syndrome (or S.O.S. to keep it simple).

What happens when we experience S.O.S.? There is a “pleasure” neurotransmitter called dopamine that’s said to regulate our behavior. It can become activated when we see bright shiny objects. This may be, for example,  what our brain experiences every time we see fireworks in the sky, play a video game, or see the bright, flashing lights of a slot machine when we win a few dollars.

A client of mine, I’ll call her Sharon, put it this way:

Sharon: I promised myself that I wouldn’t buy anything when I stepped into my favorite store that sells the latest in tech/wellness products.  But there it was: a home shiatsu massage unit with five different moves. It would fit perfectly on my office chair! I just had to have it!  It would help my tired back. It didn’t matter how much it would cost. I could always pay off my credit card over three months.  Ten minutes later I left the store with this unit. Yes, it feels good when I turn it on. But it cost more than ten trips to my chiropractor.  I know I shouldn’t have bought this just now, with my current credit card debt.   

I’m not trying to tell you not to spend money on what you love. The energy of money can and should be focused upon what you love to have, to give, and to use for important purposes in your life.

What we’re looking at, however, is a syndrome, or a group of symptoms  which consistently occur together. In this case, we’re talking about the possibility of dopamine-induced behavior which can destabilize our ability to act in a way that reflects what we truly value. 

The remedy is simple. Let me show you. That initial “rush to buy” something lasts for about 20 minutes. Incidentally, that’s why many companies who have something to sell  don’t want you to walk away from the item to “think about it.” They realize that when you do, you’re likely not to buy what you were so excited about. That goes for cars, television sets, perfume…whatever initiates that S.O.S. 

So: whenever you’re excited about buying something. No matter what it is. Even if you can afford it at the moment.  Walk away from it! Take a 20-minute walk. Buy yourself a cappuccino and sit. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I really want/need that item, or was it a momentary whim?
  2. Can I really afford that item now, or should I begin saving up for it? Along those lines, a friend of mine really wanted an item she could buy online. Instead of buying it outright, she asked family and friends to give her a gift card to this store for her birthday. The gift cards, when added up, gave her the opportunity to buy that item!
  3.  How would I feel in one week if I buy that item now? Good or guilty?
  4. Is there something else I’d rather spend money on? Like taking the money I was going to spend and put it in a vacation savings account?

By the time you answer these questions, you’ll be ready to go back and look at the item you felt you just had to have. You’ll be in the right place to make a decision, free from that initial dopamine-laced S.O.S. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? The freedom to choose that which will bring us harmony, happiness, and an experience of being in control of our choices in life.

Let me know what you think!

Until next time,