Slooking for an explanation for compulsive buying, I recently came across a story of a woman who can’t stop buying rabbits. Her husband told doctors that each day she would visit the market and return home with yet another furry creature with a compulsive habit that seemed to be an addiction. Then he felt guilty about all the rabbits he had bought.
Why does this 70-year-old woman buy so many rabbits? Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which scientists believe is caused by a lack of dopamine in some parts of the brain, he was put on drugs to trick his brain into believing it was getting the dopamine it needed. But some patients who received these “dopaminergic” drugs began compulsive shopping, gambling, and binge eating—their brains flooded with dopamine, making the rewarding behavior feel even better than usual.
I think of the woman who bought so many bunnies every time I check the most recent Amazon orders in my account, or receive a new package at my door and rush to move it inside so my neighbors don’t judge my eating habits. I know buying lots of new things is bad for the world—the production and consumption of household goods and services has been found to drive 60% of greenhouse gas emissions—but every time I buy something, I get a little joy that’s hard to come by. Stop it. As a woman who buys rabbits, I can’t stop.
But a new book has helped me understand that my desire to keep buying things isn’t really a personal fault—it’s just how our brains have evolved. And there may be a way to break the cycle.
“All things being equal, we tend to try to get more, and we try to work less to get it,” said Ann-Christine Duhaime, a Harvard surgeon who researched how to rewire the human brain to stop needing more. things in his new book, Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis.
After all, we evolved from blobs that survive because their cell networks have learned to repeat decisions such as going for a sweet treat or retreating from a reed. Today, we have about 86 billion neurons, the “action cells” in the brain, that are constantly creating circuits to reinforce rewarding behavior, releasing dopamine as they do so, to help us learn how to get a reward. We want that release from dopamine, and at the same time, learn to repeat the actions that lead to them.
Our brains like it more—and release more dopamine—when we get a good, unexpected reward, Duhaime says. Our ancestors probably learned the benefits of “small rewards that change from time to time,” as Duhaime calls them, to teach them to experiment. Maybe they were walking in a new patch of forest and came across an unexpected patch of blueberries, he writes. Different networks in their brains told them that blueberries were a good thing, which also caused their brains to release dopamine, and they learned to repeat the behavior that led to the blueberries.
The positive feeling associated with unexpected rewards is partly why we like to shop. Maybe you weren’t even thinking about buying watercolor paints and then you read something that reminds you that you love to paint, and you go online to buy watercolor paints for yourself. Even better: the watercolor paints are cheaper than you expected, and, when they arrived at your door the next day, they were of higher quality than you thought they would be. Your mind will be drawn to repeat the behavior that you found something unexpected and good.
You don’t buy those watercolor paints every day because the dopamine hit decreases every time you repeat the same new learned behavior. People become addicted to things when the appeal of that new, unexpected reward doesn’t go away over time, which helps explain why that woman who used the drug to keep the dopamine flowing kept buying so many rabbits.
(Some scientists argue that today’s society is so obsessed with shopping that many people are stuck in mind-numbingly repetitive tasks—shopping is one of the few ways they know how to do something out of the ordinary.)
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Of course, all people are different, and our brains work differently depending on our genes and life experiences. Perhaps you have inherited a certain type of receptor for a certain neurotransmitter that makes you react quickly to a certain situation, so you are at greater risk than most people. Or you may have learned in childhood that overspending can lead to poverty, which made you save even if your parents didn’t.
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A larger study of Parkinson’s patients published in 2010, for example, found that not all people who received dopamine therapy had a binge-eating disorder. Those with impulse control problems were more likely to be younger male smokers living in the US and with a family history of gambling, suggesting that both genetics and environment play a role.
That’s why Duhaime insists that our brains aren’t “hard-wired” to keep eating too much. Yes, we’ve learned over time that the key to survival is getting more resources, but the brain also has a large amount of plastic. The challenge is that our systems are designed to make short-term decisions, and reducing our individual consumption for the sake of the long-term health of the planet may not benefit each individual today. If a predator approached, we would throw a rock at it and be rewarded, but the long-term degradation of the planet becomes too difficult for the reward centers of our brain to understand, even if we are aware of it.
“The problem is, we came out ahead, and now the increase is not right for us,” said Duhaime. “It’s bad for us climate-wise, and it’s bad for us health-wise.”
The best way to change the binge habits that brought us here is not to stop buying things altogether; A better solution would be to replace old rewards with new rewards that we know, in the long run, are not good. I told Duhaime that since the days are getting shorter, I can’t stop eating chocolate right before bed to relax, even though I know I don’t need the calories. He told me about his new bedtime treat: a glass of almond milk and a cup of fancy cocoa powder, which gets him the same comforting feeling without the calories of a chocolate bar. Once she started losing weight, Duhaime says, the reward of being able to fit into her old clothes felt as good as chocolate ever did. We need that same replacement when you shop.
Buying used items, as I have written before, is a good change that can help fulfill our desire to gain. You can buy something new for yourself, and get that great feeling of unexpected reward without requiring the company to put more resources out into the world.
Read more: I tried to buy holiday gifts that are used only. It changed the way I think about shopping
Our current economy is still evolving towards a place where buying used makes sense; Sometimes, buying new clothes online is cheaper and easier than buying old ones at a thrift store. But the second-hand market is growing—and is expected to more than triple over the next decade. And companies like Apple, which had long resisted calls from consumer groups to allow customers to repair their devices, rather than buy a new one, now have a Self Service Repair Shop that offers repair manuals and genuine Apple parts.
Creating social rewards can also help move more people toward behavioral change, Duhaime said. There’s a reason people still interact and share—our brains get something out of interacting with other people. When like-minded people reinforce each other’s decisions—think of the success of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers—they can help each other change. Already, Buy Nothing groups are growing, creating communities that help people trade in used items—and there’s a #BuyNothingDay hashtag circulating on social media aimed at stopping people from shopping unnecessarily on Black Friday.
Duhaime points to a successful project in the Netherlands called the Eco-Team Program, where groups of neighbors come together to try to change their behavior, perhaps tracking the weight of waste they produce or the amount of water they use. Over time, practices that protect the environment replaced harmful ones, as neighbors formed new connections through shared experiences to change their behavior. “If there’s no reward,” said Duhaime, “we won’t do it.”
Whether that approach will work in the US is up for debate. There have been efforts to encourage similar behavior. In his 1995 book, Ecoteam: A Program Empowering Americans to Create Earth-Friendly Lifestyles, David Gershon, author and expert on social change, laid out a strategy. It involved forming groups of family members or neighbors and agreeing to certain shared goals, such as keeping their thermostats at 65°F or removing their names from spam lists.
Of course, this book is available on Amazon if you’re looking for something to buy.
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