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The Neurobiology of McMansions

How Our Brain Structures Led to the Housing Crisis


That is the derogatory term that arose the last few years for the large cookie-cutter suburban subdivisions that seem to have sprung up everywhere. You may have driven through these subdivisions and, much like me, wondered where so many people found so much money. I know what I make. I know I’m in the top 5% or so of income earners. So why don’t I have a top 5% McMansion?

In retrospect, it has become obvious that many of these people could not afford what they bought. This leads to the question of why they bought houses that pushed the limits of what they could pay. Blame it on their brains.

It is a sad but true statement about the human race that we don’t care about absolute wealth. We care about relative wealth – how much wealth we have compared to other people. We don’t want a higher standard of living if everyone else has it too. Some books would say it is all a result of an elaborate mating game. Women and men, in an ever more intense race to impress each other, attempt to make it look as though their income and success are much higher than they really are. But it goes deeper than that. The problem with the housing market can be blamed on the ventral striatum.

Last year, the neuroeconomics lab at Bonn released the results of a study or reward that involved scanning the brains of participants. What they found was not just that brains responded well to a reward. They found that brains responded even stronger to a reward that was better than the reward given to others. The experiment involved pairs of male volunteers competing for prizes on the same task. The BBC article about the research explains it well.

Both “players” were asked to estimate the number of dots appearing on a screen. Providing the right answer earned a real financial reward between 30 (£22) and 120 (£86) euros. Each of the participants was told how their partners had performed and how much they were paid. Using magnetic resonance tomographs, the researchers examined the volunteers’ blood circulation throughout the activities. High blood flow indicated that the nerve cells in the respective part of the brain were particularly active.

Neuroscientist Dr Bernd Weber explains: “One area in particular, the ventral striatum, is the region where part of what we call the ‘reward system’ is located. In this area, we observed an activation when the player completed his task correctly.”
A wrong answer, and no payment, resulted in a reduction in blood flow to the “reward region”. But the area “lit up” when volunteers earned money, and interestingly showed far more activity if a player received more than his partner.

This indicated that stimulation of the reward centre was not merely linked to individual success, but to the success of others.

You may have heard about “keeping up with the Joneses.” This research shows that it isn’t just something that affects a few of the more shallow among us. It is a real human need with a deeply rooted anatomical cause.

So back to the McMansions… what is a man to do… let all of his friends have the bigger, nicer, newer house? It seems that the drive of the ventral striatum outweighed the rational thought process for many people. All the while, lenders and investors, whose ventral striatums were firing like crazy as they tried to rack up larger earnings and returns, respectively, played along to satisfy that same deep seated need to be better than the next guy. The irony, or perhaps the karma, is that most of them ended up looking worse.

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7 Responses to “The Neurobiology of McMansions”

  1. […] Rob releases another great post on The Neurobiology of McMansions: How Our Brain Structures Led to … Check it out: […]

  2. Tom Humes says:

    Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  3. bill says:

    Gosh, and I thought it was just the same compensation need that lead people to buy Hummers and the like. Interesting article. Thanks.

  4. dlwaters says:

    Our McBrains are subject the influences of society. We are approaching the end of the Economic Age and slipping into the Age of Limited Resources. They key difference being that Economic Age thinking valued growth and The Value of Illusory Wealth more than Sustainability. Sustainability is not anti-capitalist, it applies a more realistic value to resourses, whether they are human, energy-based or intellectual recourses.

    Neo-Conservatives missed the point: Yes, it is possible to make a *lot* of money off the short term ignorance of a population, but when the economics of self-interest have a direct impact on the overall economy of the masses, the masses are going to start looking for scapegoats … those who set and benefited from an unsustainable policy of borrowing money beyond the means of the system that supports the neo-conservative movement Neo-con Republicans have been biting the hand that feeds them. Without an intelligent, well compensated workforce, taught to Learn how to Learn by a strong public education system, the American Corporate system will face collapse.

    The great unwashed masses may need a paycheck, but they aren’t going to rely on tax cuts to corporations and the wealthier section of America when they can’t feed their children, pay for their home, or afford medicine for the less fortunate in their family.

    Capitalism is creativity, but only if the cards aren’t stacked in favor of those who already hold the patents or the finances to pay the lawyers or “lobby” (bribe) the politicians.

    Lobbying works from the bottom up, too. The classes of America whose wealth is shrinking far outnumber those whose retirement is secure.

    I do not wish to dismantle capitalism, I just want Corporate Workfare to be labeled as such. I want accountability for earmarks. I want the congressional Favor Bank to apply to those who are numerous and voting, just as much as those few corporate and personal interests with deep pockets.

    Don’t blame our brains for failing and falling into the McMansion mentality. Blame us sheep for not saying, “No more! Do not distract us with matters of subtle moral controversy when our children are hungry.”

    We are all human, and subject to influence by trying to keep up with the Joneses, but we are also capable of saying, “You know … I’d be satisfied with a working wage, if I felt my bridges wouldn’t collapse, my pharmaceuticals were doing what the FDA promised they were doing, my children were getting a decent education, my food wasn’t infected, and my partner and I were able to live our elder years without having to work long hours while doing so.

    America … the people of America … will come home to roost. They will speak form their pocketbook and look for ways to become less reliant on foreign products, on products shipped on oil-sucking trucks across the country. In spite of aspirations toward a Global Economy, America needs to make sure that its most valuable resource, the working class, are well educated and have food on the table.


  5. Glen says:

    That my friend is a great article! Even for my old Corpus Striatum , I was able to follow that as if my daughter had wrote it, except she hasn’t learnt to write yet.. just circles and squiggles, but a picture tells a thousand story’s! 😛

  6. Jason says:

    It seems like we need a good old fashioned revival of Stoicism. Keeping up with the Joneses may be deep-seated, but it certainly isn’t insurmountable. I think you made a post about the hedonic treadmill in an earlier blog post, that might represent another approach to the dilemma faced here.

  7. Alex says:

    I think one of the most frightening aspects of reading this was that I know understand the motivation of a couple I know who has switched houses in three times in two years.

    Well written! Thanks!

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