Amazon Go? Amazon No.
Amazon.com — everyone’s favorite drone pilot and dream disrupter — just announced plans for a store without check out lines. The new Amazon Go will allow shoppers simply to grab items off the shelves and, well, go, all without having to stop to pay. Everything will be billed to their account later.
This seems awfully convenient for consumers, but it’s actually very, very bad.
Because we consumers will end up spending way more than we intend to, more than we need to, more than we should.
It eliminates the pain of paying.
The pain of paying.
No, seriously, what?
Ah, you mean, “What’s the pain of paying?” Gotchya. Let me ‘splain.
We experience pain when we pay for things, a concept first explored by Professors Drazen Prelec and George Loewenstein. It’s not just conceptual, it’s very real. High prices — any prices, really — have been shown to stimulate regions of the brain associated with pain. The more we think about spending, the more painful it becomes, and the less enjoyable it is to consume and experience our purchase.
The pain of paying is actually a good thing because pain is important. Pain tells us something is wrong. The pain of a burn tells us not to touch a stove. A painful broken leg tells us to get off the football field. Rejection in seventh grade taught me to avoid girls named Megan. Sorry, Megans.
The pain of paying tells us something might be wrong, too. It makes us stop and think about our purchase, even for a second. To consciously decide if it’s the best use of our money.
Amazon Go is just the latest advance to prey upon our human instinct to avoid — or at least, bumb — pain, rather than learn from it. Jerry explains best:
“There are many things that we can point to that as proof that the human being is not smart. The helmet is my personal favorite. The fact that we had to invent the helmet. Now why did we invent the helmet? Well, because we were participating in many activities that were cracking our heads. We looked at the situation. We chose not to avoid these activities, but to just make little plastic hats so that we can continue our head-cracking lifestyles. The only thing dumber than the helmet is the helmet law, the point of which is to protect a brain that is functioning so poorly, it’s not even trying to stop the cracking of the head that it’s in…” — Jerry Seinfeld, “I’m Telling You For The Last Time”
Amazon Go — like Apple Pay, E-ZPass, Venmo or whatever the kids are doing these days — is a little financial helmet making sure we keep doing dumb things with our money.
How? By reducing our attention to spending. In the case of Amazon Go, by reducing that attention to zero. We pick up an item, hold it in our hand and think only of the benefits of having it, not the cost of paying for it. We don’t have to grab our cash, our wallets, our phones or even, eventually, some kind of wacky retinal scan (the Apple iBall!) so we just walk out without even considering cost.
Ever heard of a “cost-benefit analysis,” the foundation of economic decision-making? That sorta doesn’t happen if the cost is zero.
The science supports this, even if it hasn’t caught up to Amazon Go. We’ve certainly studied credit cards, which are basically a step between paying cash — when we are aware of every bill we pull from our musty old wallets — and the blissful ignorance of Amazon Go.
Credit cards — even just displaying credit card paraphernalia — makes us spend more, more quickly, more carelessly and more forgetfully than we would otherwise. Credit cards also make us think about the good parts of a purchase — how it will feel, taste, and shine after we rub our neighbors nose in it — rather than the bad — how much it costs, what else we could have done with that money, how dirty our neighbor’s face is. Credit cards feel so good, they relieve so much pain, that Jesse Pinkman’s going to make ’em in the reboot of Breaking Bad.
And that’s just credit cards, which at least force us to stop, take out of our wallet and swipe. With Amazon Go, we don’t have to do anything. We just grab something and think about how “cool” and “convenient” it is that we don’t have to pay. We are not even aware that we’re paying.
No. Our lack of spending awareness may be the scariest thing about the future of money and the pain of paying. Many technological advances are designed to make us unaware of what we’re doing with our money. If we don’t know something’s happening, how can we judge it, value it, make informed decisions? We can’t. And that’s the point.
Maybe we should consider Amazon.com a serial abuser of our pain of paying, a disrupter of our financial well-being. The first patent they defended was for the “one-click” check out technology that makes spending “easier,” and Amazon Prime requires just one yearly payment so we don’t feel pain every other time we order something with “free” shipping. Now there’s Amazon Go. Guess we’re not supposed to notice the snakes, vines, bug bites or rain in Amazon’s jungle.
If we don’t feel something, it can’t hurt. But sometimes a little pain helps us think about what we’re doing and become better consumers. No pain, no gain… except for the bottom line of Amazon.com and, eventually, personal bankruptcy attorneys.
Jeff Kreisler is an author and comedian who just wrote a book about behavioral economics with Dan Ariely. HarperCollins is going to shove it into your eyeholes in 2017.