The High Cost Of Easy Payments

The problem, if you can call it that, with using cell phones and Visa cards to pay is that they remove the friction of payment. While convenient, that also nudges us to spend more irresponsibly than if we paid with laborious—and insula secreting—cash.

Here’s the problem with credit cards: the insula doesn’t seem to understand how they work. When we pay with plastic, the transaction is abstracted. Instead of forking over cash, we just swipe a thin card. As a result, the usual hurt of spending is diminished – we barely notice that we’ve given something up. (As the scientists note, “The nature of credit cards ensures that your brain is anaesthetized against the pain of payment.”). Because spending money doesn’t feel bad, we spend more money, even when we can’t afford it.

Cell phones, of course, will make such retail transactions even more abstract. (At least credit cards are dedicated to payment.) I can only imagine how much people will bid for Celtics tickets once they can bid by phone.

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Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

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