Exploring a triple-system neural model of maladaptive consumption


A new article published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research presents a neural model of maladaptive consumption.

Consumption (of substances, food, and online media, for instance) is driven mainly by expected rewards that stem from the ability of the consumption act to satisfy intrinsic (e.g., curiosity) and extrinsic (e.g., job performance) needs. In the article “A Triple-System Neural Model of Maladaptive Consumption,” the authors define maladaptive consumption as a state of compulsive seeking and consumption of rewarding products or experiences, which are sustained despite the negative consequences of such behaviors.

“Understanding the neural basis of maladaptive consumption is important because it can serve as a basis for developing policies that minimize the chances of maladaptive consumption and serve to protect consumers, especially vulnerable populations, like children,” note authors Ofir Turel and Antoine Bechara. Getting into the brain networks that govern maladaptive decision making in response to rewarding products/services can lead to interventions that reduce maladaptive consumption post hoc and ethical guidelines for marketers and service providers to decide when it is ethical to use habit-forming mechanisms, such as reward variability, to entice consumers into maladaptive consumption.

The proposed model includes three neural systems, among which the interaction may drive maladaptive behaviors. These include the impulsive system which mediates reward expectation and management, in form of dopamine release; the reflective system, which largely engages the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for self-control and long-term planning); and the interoceptive-awareness system (which includes the insula, which responds to body interoceptive signals elicited by withdrawal and reward deprivation, leading to urges).

Since these brain regions often operate in an interrelated neural network rather than in isolation, a holistic perspective focusing on the interactions among these brain regions would help provide a better understanding of underlying mechanisms of consumption decisions. The paper proposes that maladaptive behaviors may arise from abnormal activity in any one or a combination of these three neural systems or connectivity among the brain systems.

This model can inform other neural representations of maladaptive consumption, which assumes that maladaptive behaviors result from an overactive reward system and/or an underactive self-control system, and the consequent transitioning from goal-directed to automatic and habitual behaviors. “The triple model supplements this view and suggests that situational conditions, such as deprivation, can exacerbate the reliance on habit-controlled processes,” write the authors.

The model extends the neuro-marketing view of the brain underpinnings of normal consumption to the case of maladaptive consumption and provides insights for marketers, consumer rights advocates, and regulators. Such a model may inform research on binge-watching and other common excess consumptions, such as pornography, and help explain why some people engage in such behaviors and how they respond to advertising.