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The Science of Neighbourhoods: Yorkville and the Psychology of Luxury
How expensive stuff messes with your brain, and makes you broke as hell

Image via flickr

It’s hard to believe that Yorkville was once full of hippies. These days, it’s where you go to look like you’ve just been spotted by the Sartorialist. You’ll see women bouncing along the sidewalk like gazelles in five-inch studded platforms, and men smoking in tailored suits and un-ironic pocket squares. All that stuff looks expensive, and there’s a good reason why.

Making something look luxurious tends to make people want it more. Take Club Monaco – where I once overheard a training session for a new sales associate. Here’s what I learned: apparently all the hangers on the rack should be about an inch apart, all the clothes should be perfectly aligned, and more than anything, all the price tags should be tucked away and out of the innocent browser’s sight.

There’s something about that kind of attention to detail that does something to us. In a lot of people, the perception of luxury makes an item more desirable. What’s even weirder is that your brain actually thinks it’s better.

In a 2008 study, Antonio Rangel and his team got volunteers to sip different samples of wine while they were in a brain scanner. He told them they were tasting five cabernet sauvignon wines, all at different prices, from $5 to $90 a bottle. While they were in the scanner trying each wine, he mentioned the price of the bottle, and asked them to rate how much they liked the wine. Oh, and he also lied: they were only trying three different wines – two of them were repeats, but at supposedly different prices.

The study found that despite the repeats, participants would assign higher ratings to a wine if they thought it cost more. Well, we were kind of expecting that. But what they also found (which is way cooler) was that the participants’ level of brain activity rose according to the impressiveness of the pricetags. Specifically, the medial orbitofrontal cortex (an area linked with experiences of pleasure) showed a higher level of activation for higher-priced wines. Even though the wines were secretly the same price.

Rangel’s study was the first to document how marketing ploys work at the level of our neurons. We don’t just say we like the expensive wines more – our brain is actually experiencing more pleasure (hey, medial orbitofrontal cortex!) the more expensive we think it is.

Since then, research on our brains’ responses to consumer products has exploded. It even created a new branch of research called neuromarketing, which studies how marketing affects our brains and our decisions about what to buy. A few neuromarketing “firms” have popped up, which offer their business clients a look at consumers’ neural responses to products. Basically think of it as a focus group, but where the group participants happen to be in a brain scanner. They’ve studied everything from movie trailers to products to speeches by Obama. And while the method sounds cool, I’ll admit I’m not totally convinced. Sure, neuromarketers could be the Mad Men of the 21st century – but it could also just be a short-lived fad that’ll expire when brain research stops sounding so sexy.

Even so, scientists are learning a lot about how marketing tricks mess with our minds. If you’re drinking a beer, knowing the brand and ingredients can affect how good you think it tastes. Even weirder – if you raise the price of an energy drink, you can actually influence the drinker’s ability to solve puzzles. In other words, if they think they paid more for it, they’ll think it works better.

Places like Yorkville are a living experiment for this kind of research. You can take notes on the number of times people pay $200 for a plain white t-shirt. And does that t-shirt feel any better? Maybe their brains say so. Prices don’t just affect the way we value objects: they change the way we experience them. That’s something to think about next time you’re deciding whether to browse the one-inch-apart hangers at Club Monaco, versus scavenging elbow-deep in the $10 discount pile at Zara down the street.


Erene Stergiopoulos writes about brains and neighbourhoods for Toronto StandardFollow her on Twitter @fullerenes.

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