Treat brain: how the pandemic is rewiring our minds
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A few months ago, my friend Gráinne came to stay. Her partner, a teacher, needed to isolate in their flat, having caught Covid-19 during a school trip. One day, Gráinne joined me in the living room where I was watching Love Island and brought a carton of noodles with her.
I made a halfhearted attempt to justify why I was watching trashy reality TV. She did the same about her midweek takeaway. Sure, she didn’t need one, but she was stressed by the upheaval and, anyway, she’d been getting midweek takeaways pretty often since the pandemic began. “It’s treat brain,” she said, shrugging.
Here, finally, was a term for the mindset I had noticed myself slipping into over the past 18 months. Before coronavirus, I had relatively good impulse control. I would treat myself to an unhealthy meal or a lazy afternoon or a new pair of trousers, but only occasionally.
This changed completely when lockdown arrived. Suddenly, I was eating pizza upon pizza upon pizza, their boxes towering up like greasy Jenga blocks in the corner of my flat. Every day was a day for emergency chocolate. I bought video games, make-up I didn’t know how to use and two suits in the space of one week. Gone was the little voice in my head that used to gently intervene when I was overindulging. Treat brain was in charge.
I asked friends and people on social media if they had noticed something similar. Lots of them responded an emphatic yes. One person told me they had started drinking a tequila picante every day. Someone else bought a car she didn’t really need and wrote it off the first day she drove it. CBD drinks, natural wine, Tony’s Chocolonely, gold-studded boots, dry cleaning, endless Uber Eats. A charity worker on a modest salary described her new £77 face serum made of pig placenta. A student told me she had to routinely give herself three hours of TV as a treat for doing one online class.
People spent more time on Instagram and, so, saw more adverts and fell prey to purchases such as cute seal plushies, weightlifting equipment, unflattering dungarees.
A friend sent me a long, panicked-seeming text about his growing oyster habit. He’d only tried them once or twice before the pandemic, but now he finds himself cycling to a fishmonger’s to buy a box of six and eating them right there in the street. “I don’t know why I do it; at this point it’s not even fun,” he said.
One way of defining pleasure, a notoriously difficult thing to do, is as an absence of pain. Psychic pain of one kind or another has been the norm during the pandemic, and we were deprived of many of our usual pleasures at the very same time. The pleasure of knowing your loved ones are thriving. The pleasure of a hug. The pleasurable thrum of a large social gathering. For those not in cohabiting relationships, it was forbidden to seek sexual pleasure with another person. It’s no surprise we looked for substitute pleasures, even if the comfort these treats provided was fleeting.
I wanted to speak to some experts about treat brain, to understand where it came from and at what point it might become a problem. Liam Delaney, professor of behavioural science at the LSE, says there is “definitely a cluster of people who are in the sort of indulgent pattern you describe”, and points to data showing that alcohol sales in supermarkets rose sharply in 2020.
But not everyone responded in the same way. “It’s remarkably variable across the population,” Delaney says. There are a large number of people for whom the arrival of Covid-19 meant loss of income or a more punishing work schedule, so they had less time or money to fritter away on extravagances. And there are people who have been using the pandemic as an opportunity to save.
“Why does someone do something? Because it’s easy to do,” Paul Dolan, a behavioural scientist and author of a book about pleasure called Happiness by Design, tells me. Giving yourself constant treats is easier for people working from home, where you have frictionless access to online shopping and to the food in your fridge, with no judgment from colleagues. Drinking more is easier if you don’t have to show up to an in-person meeting at nine the next morning.
These treats can act as a temporary band-aid over a deeper need. When we are very tired — say, because we’re juggling homeschooling and a job — what we might really need is more sleep. But if we can’t get it, a more easily available source of comfort might be chocolate or wine.
The most powerful dictator of your habits is your environment, Dolan says. Most of what we do is not prompted by conscious thought. We make thousands of decisions every day, so our brains tend to create habit loops to automate our behaviour. But habits can only work when the cues for them are activated in the environment. Change the environment, by locking people inside 23 hours a day, for instance, and you change the habit.
Another driver of treat-brain behaviour over the course of the pandemic has been our need for distraction. “Life is a series of distractions,” says Dolan, “I think in part because if we actually stopped and thought about the serious stuff, our heads would explode.” Before coronavirus, many of us were busy most of the time and less in need of treat-based distractions. We’ve certainly had enough to seek distraction from in the past 18 months.
Noel Bell, a psychotherapist, says the pandemic has also shifted our perception of what is a need versus what is an indulgence. A home exercise bike before the pandemic: an indulgence. During the pandemic: perhaps closer to a need.
A lot of people’s baselines have shifted too. Before, I would happily buy whatever £7 bottle of wine was on special offer in Sainsbury’s, but since treating myself to a nicer, more expensive wine every week in 2020, I want the nicer, more expensive wine in perpetuity. It’s nicer.
At points during the pandemic we were encouraged to indulge. Eat Out to Help Out, the UK scheme offering half-price food and non-alcoholic drinks last August, was the most notable example of the government actively trying to make us treat ourselves — to see it as a service towards the economy as well as something personally enjoyable. More than 100 million meals were claimed. The campaign’s impact was later complicated by suggestions that it may have increased the spread of Covid-19. Go out spending to save the economy, but don’t spread the virus unnecessarily: an oxymoron of an order.
Now, when I overspend on a frivolous lunch, I pat myself on the back even as I question my choices, because I’m supporting local business, aren’t I? And that’s a good thing, right? No wonder people have felt confused about whether treating themselves is wise or justifiable.
As the pandemic gathered pace in March 2020, the FT published an interview with the psychotherapist and grief expert Julia Samuel. One of her five tips for coping with the anxiety and turmoil caused by Covid-19 was to “give yourself intentional treats (preferably not tons of alcohol)”.
I asked Samuel why intentionality matters. “Having something to look forward to when you’re scared helps you manage all of the uncertainties,” she told me. “So if you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to give myself a luxury takeaway on Tuesdays, and on Thursdays I’m going to have an extra-long smelly bath,’ having that to look forward to helps lift your mood, both during those times and in the times in-between.”
This guidance, to deliberately do things that soothe you, is the kind of advice Samuel gives to people grieving the death of a loved one. And she doesn’t see what we’ve all gone through in the past 18 months as being so different from traditional grief. “I call it a collective grief,” she says, “grief for a way of life.”
All through lockdown, I assumed treat brain would subside once things opened up again, and I would stop living like a dauphin in pre-revolutionary France. I associated it with other unhinged behaviours prompted by the pandemic, in the same category as the yo-yoing mood swings, the over-emotionality that had me in tears four days in a row after learning about the untimely death in 1983 of a Canadian folk singer I had previously never heard of.
However, things have now opened up. And while the mood swings and teariness are gone, treat brain persists. For lots of people I spoke to, the same was true. Why hasn’t it gone away? Is that a problem, or not? “We’re still depleted from repetitively doing the same thing all the time,” says Samuel, “so I think treats still feel very exciting.”
The good news is that it’s probably in your power to revert to your old ways if you want to. “People are quite adaptable, and a year of bad habits isn’t that bad,” says Delaney, the behavioural scientist. For people with existing issues around addictive or impulsive behaviour, though, it may not be so easy.
I spoke to Jasmine, a woman with ADHD, who said she recognises treat brain as something she struggles with in general, not just during the pandemic. “ADHD brains are in constant pursuit of dopamine, so treat brain is a constant state of being, as impulse purchases spark the creation of dopamine. It’s like having your six-year-old self in your head demanding an overpriced toy and being the exhausted parent at the same time.”
Treat-seeking behaviour can also tip into something destructive. One woman, a marketing manager from Basingstoke, Hampshire, told me that treat brain had driven her to bankruptcy, forcing her to move back in with her parents.
I ask Samuel what advice she would give anyone trying to undo some of their treat-brain behaviour. She cites the work of Stanford University behavioural scientist BJ Fogg: “You get big results from tiny habits. So if your treat was, ‘I deserve a drink every night,’ initially, just have one six nights instead of seven. You successfully change habits not by willpower, but by feeling good about having changed your habit. So if you set yourself a target that feels small and manageable, you then feel pleased that you’ve done it, and you’re much more likely to build on it.”
Treats that are obtained at the expense of others’ wellbeing are best avoided, obviously. The £7 dress you wear only once, cocaine, stealing your flatmate’s doughnut. And treats that are all consumer goods can make you feel grubby, like being a rat in the maze of late-capitalism, smashing the “buy now” button for an ever-less-satisfying lick of endorphins. Plainly, you can’t spend way over your means without eventually making unpleasant contact with the bottom of your bank balance.
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But in truth, I’m not sure I want treat brain to go away completely. I’m not alone. People I spoke to told me they enjoyed spending a little more than they used to and felt the pandemic had shown them that they were subconsciously saving for a day that they now doubt is ever coming. “I’m not going to get to buy a house, so I might as well buy a glittery unicorn key ring,” said Eloise, a Londoner in her twenties.
It’s not just about money, though. I spent a dismaying amount of my twenties training myself not to eat. When my disordered eating was at its worst, I would look for ways to avoid invitations to eat with people, hide how much or how little I was eating from those close to me, count every calorie and think about food almost constantly. For me, the pandemic was a reset, at times a painful one. Suddenly, I was allowing myself pizza, chocolate, wine, whenever I wanted it, justifying it all by saying that on the other side of lockdown I would go back to dieting, scour these treats out of my life.
But now that lockdown is over, all I want to do is eat and drink with my friends. The tomorrow I imagined in which I would “be good” again has never come, and I don’t want it to. I want to enjoy myself. The truth is life was always like this: a series of good times and bad times, and I deserved to eat what I wanted in all of them.
Dolan thinks that if any good can be said to have come out of the past 18 months, it’s that it has allowed people to reflect on how they want to live. “We have all these narratives about the lives that we think we should be leading, and oftentimes they’ll get in the way of people leading happy lives,” he says. I tell him about spending and eating too much, staying out too late. He stops me. “You see what you’ve done there? Just naturally, you’ve added ‘too much’ and made a judgment about it. Actually, maybe all of what you did before was too little.”
Human beings have a long history of suspecting that pleasure and indulgence are negative things. Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, said that people who thought pleasure was a form of goodness should go forth and “lead the life of a worm, of which you judged yourself worthy: eat and drink, and enjoy women, and ease yourself, and snore”.
As Hettie O’Brien wrote in The Baffler magazine last year, on the flip side the pandemic has triggered a surge in the popularity of a kind of neo-Stoicism. Articles about how our benighted age is the perfect moment for the Stoic idea that self-control will save us are rather common. They usually suggest weathering the pandemic storm without caving in to vices will bestow a better, more noble kind of existence than people haemorrhaging cash on pastries.
I don’t want to think like that. There is a balance to be struck between being sensible and being indulgent, and that balance will look different for each individual. I don’t want to argue that treating yourself to things more often is politically worthy or a radical act of “self-care”. Spending money slightly more frivolously and eating lots of little cakes isn’t, I think, morally good or bad. It’s just one possible way to live that, for me, had not felt very possible before. The pandemic has been a period of intense moralising about individual behaviour, and it would be good to free ourselves from that perspective, to enjoy making our own choices again.
Trying to maintain a pattern of thinking in which pleasure is something to be sought and not to be atoned for is probably going to make my life better. So I want treat brain to feel less like a pathology I am wrestling with, and more like a mindset I am cautiously but actively cultivating.
Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London. Her novel “Deep Down” will be published in 2023
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