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Slowing Down the German Brain

Toma TasovacMarch 30, 2006

How do you keep Germans from using their brains? A screaming red sales sign is a good start.

Must be a good dealImage: dpa

Year 2004 marked an important milestone in the history of the German psyche. In that year, the impossible happened: After nearly 100 years of state regulation, the fixed end-of-July and end-of-January dates for the summer and winter clearance sales were abolished. A new law against unfair competition made it possible for shops to decide on their own seasonal sales and discounts.

What that actually meant was that Germans would no longer have to subject themselves to the biannual humiliation of being elbowed into submission by a stampede of retired citizens looking for the best deal on a new pair of Birkenstocks.

Some Germans were made extremely insecure at the time by the thought that they would no longer have to dwell in department stores surrounded by the collective unconscious while buying their children's entire wardrobe for the next six months. Some, on the other hand, felt that all their dreams came true and that Germany would become the land of perpetual sales -- a 21st century version of paradise. And some continue to this day to revel in the sweet sin of commercial abandon only twice a year. It's a life-long habit that's hard to shake off.

A typically German passion?

Model vom Gehirn
Even German brains need an occasional breakImage: AP

Passion for frugality is like no other passion, because it is based on lack, rather than excess. It combines the excitement over a new acquisition with a sense of personal accomplishment. "I got myself a deal" means that I was smarter than the next sucker who, only a few days earlier, bought the same thing at a regular price. "I got myself a deal" is the official, sweet-sounding anthem of late capitalism: it inspires you to keep shopping in a hazy cloud of massive self-delusion.

But there is also the other side of the story. A study conducted by Christian Elger from the Clinic for Epileptology at the University of Bonn is beginning to shed light on the wild party that goes on in the brain when Germans run into a loud "Rabatt" (sales) sign in the window of their favorite department store. According to the preliminary and non-conclusive result of Elger's study, the human brain is much more active during regular shopping than it is during clearance sales. As soon as a shopper sees a "sales" sign, his brain actually slows down to take a little break.

No math, please!

Konsum - Kaufhaus
It's a clearance! It's a party!Image: dpa

A German TV crew put this study to test by organizing a fake t-shirt sale in the pedestrian area of the German city of Bochum. T-shirts were sold individually at 1.60 euros ($1.93), but also in a "discounted" package of "3 for 5 euros." Hypnotized by the huge sales sign, most passers-by rushed to get themselves a deal without doing the math. If they hadn't let their brain temporarily sip caipirinhas on a tropical island, they would've realized that three individual t-shirts would have cost them 4.80 euros and that the "discount" they got was actually a rip-off.

Clearance sales, from a physiological perspective, at least, seem like chill-out parties for overworked German brains. Which means that Germans are maybe not that stingy, after all. Maybe, all they ever wanted from life was to take a break in the mindless, gratuitous, discount-shopping nirvana. To stop thinking, if for one split second.