Science knows why you’re a cheapskate

Photo of Mary Katharine Ham
Mary Katharine Ham
Contributor

A professor of economics and psychology figured out why it took me three years of deliberation to buy a $120 iPod nano. Turns out, I’m a cheapskate, psychologically. My brain is a tightwad, according to LiveScience’s feature on the opposite personality traits.

Prof. George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon studied 13,000 people, starting in 2004, and found that 24 percent of them are tightwads, who have trouble spending money even when they need to. On the other end of the materialism spectrum are spendthrifts, who have trouble controlling their spending— about 15 percent of the population.

Loewenstein and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This brain scanning technique monitors blood flow to areas in the brain activated when performing a task.

When study subjects looked at a desirable item, such as chocolate candies, their brains produced a starkly different response than when viewing the item’s price tag. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

“We would first show [the study subject] the product, and if they liked the product, the reward centers of the brain would light up,” said Loewenstein. “Then we’d show them the price and the pain and disgust regions activated.”

For tightwads like myself, the feeling of disgust (originating in the same place as reactions to bad smells) overrides rational decision-making. Tightwads often won’t buy things they know they need. For instance, if one were to break her Blackberry a week and a half ago, but avoid buying a new phone despite the fact that she uses a smart phone roughly every second of every day, she would qualify as a tightwad. You know, if you knew someone like that.

The study also found that men are three times more likely to be tightwads whereas women are more evenly distributed between the poles. And, I’d be a way bigger tightwad if I didn’t have credit cards:

“Several papers propose, as well as ours, that it is less painful using credit cards,” Rick told LiveScience. “Not giving up anything tangible kind of helped cure the tightwads of their affliction.” For spendthrifts, the medium of purchasing power didn’t really matter, Rick added, “because cash feels like credit to them.”

It seems to me good and rather surprising news that a greater percentage of Americans are tightwads than spendthrifts. A 2010 study also showed buying experiences gives you more happiness for your buck than buying things, which matters to consumers pressed for cash and looking to make wise decisions in rough economic times. Now, if only we could get a few more of these tightwad, careful decision-makers in Congress.