Cognitive Behavior Therapy and The Scary Truth About Target

Y’all, you might need to sit down for this.

I have figured out why we have virtually no ability to self regulate in Target. Why we all understand the scenario of walking in under that big red bullseye and walking out 3 hours later with no idea what happened and cart full of things you had no intention of buying.

There I was, doing dishes and thinking about what to do this week while the kids are gone at the beach. Enter stage right of my daydream was the front of that red cart. I could feel the chill of a cold coffee in my hand. I could feel the motion of the back and forth as I would weave in and out of The Spot. I could hear myself saying “Now Sarah, if you behave, I’ll get you a treat!”

Something new occurred to me at this point in the daydream. Target has its impulse buys at the very beginning of the experience. How strange. This is not how other stores function. Target also has impulse buys at the register, but their major point of “Do I need this? Aw who cares, it’s only a dollar!” is at the beginning. Why could that be?

In the next moment the background in my daydream changed. There I sat in the gross motor/meeting room at Head Start back in Washington Court House, Ohio. We’d had a particularly challenging time in those months leading up to that training and were hungry for any advice that this behavioral expert could give us.

Over and over through the years I have used what he taught that day about “neutral observations.” Creating a connection with a child who wants to fight off any connection by making them feel noticed but not attaching a positive or a negative connotation to what you say to them. No more “I like your criss cross applesauce, calm body!” No more “We shouldn’t hit our friends!” Now we were to look at the child and say “I see you are wearing a blue shirt” and leave it at that. The child feels noticed but cannot exercise control over that interaction to push you away. You build a relationship. You sound like a big ol’ weirdo, but let me tell you. It works, every time.

The other concept he introduced was a “yes set.” You get a child to agree to what you want him to do by asking him questions that are very obviously answered with a yes. “Is that a ball?” Yes. “Is it red?” Yes. “Would you put it in the bucket?” Yes. It was not as mind blowing to me as the neutral observations and so I’d set it on the shelf in my mind and forgotten it.

But leaned up at the sink today, there it was again. A “Yes set.” And I understood. Target has exercised an amazing cognitive behavioral challenge on us!

Think on this. A mom goes to a similar big box store. She spends the whole store trip say “No. Don’t touch that. Don’t grab this. Put that back.” She is all practiced up for getting to the check out aisle with her little ones who match her training for training. Who will break? Can I have it, Mom. No. Pleeeeeease! No. Just one, Mom! No.

Mom wins the impulse control battle with the child, because she’s practiced the whole trip just repeating no. When she leaves the store, she feels negative because she just had to spend the whole time arguing with her kids.

But imagine, Mom walks into Target. The first thing she sees, which is actually stuck out further into the walkway so she cannot ignore it, is an impulse buyers paradise. And why not?!? A scarf? It’s only $3! A bow for your daughter? Just a dollar. A light saber? $3. A floppy hat, some seeds, a journal (she’s been meaning to write more), a pet toy, a new cell phone case, a very thin yoga mat (if it’s December and that New Year’s resolution is coming up), some educational tools for the kids, Minions socks for her son, a tea towel with a witty phrase, a holiday decoration, a chalkboard something (because it’s almost exactly what she saw on Pinterest, and now she won’t mess it up making it herself), a few pirate kid’s plates, a candle and she has a good start to filling up that cart. Turn the corner and there are those animal cracker packs so easy for sticking in lunch boxes. For just a measly, well, uh, it can’t be that much right, because each thing was like, a dollar….ish.

She has just said yes to every department she will walk through. She has already agreed to buy clothing for her and her children. She’s nodded happily to toys and home goods. She remembers that Fido was low on food, which she hadn’t really thought about until that squeaky seasonal bone looked so agreeably at her. She’s felt that holiday spirit and dropped in something that will remind her she did want to go all the way to the back of the store to see what they put back there in that impulse control disaster of a seasonal section, which is right next to lawn and garden where she certainly needs everything it will take to make those dollar seeds grow. As she walks out of lawn and garden, she remembers, Junior needs some food to go on that new pirate plate.

She has said yes so many times that by the time she makes it out of the Spot the idea of saying “No! Don’t touch that!” seems foolish, because HELLO who wouldn’t want to touch everything?!?!

Not only that, take a moment and realize that the other end of the cash registers is closed off, so Mom can’t skip it and enter through another path. This creates a bit of a bottleneck over by the entrance. That paired with the walled off feeling created by the snack display on the back of the Spot is absolutely enough to make Mom think twice. She had considered telling Junior that if he doesn’t sit down in the cart and stop harassing his sister, then she will make him put that light saber back! But ugh, to go back up there and put it back in the bin? That is a hassle.

She bites her tongues. Yes has been so easy and so pleasant, and no….well, no is the worst, because her cart won’t fit going against the flow of traffic and nobody wants to take a screaming kid back into the Spot.

So she heads to the register, Junior is happy, she is happy, the baby has fallen asleep because she’s been in the carseat on top of the cart for the past …uh…hour-ish. Mom reads the covers of the magazines. She smiles at the college girls with this dorm signs and the same holiday decorations she’s chosen, and feels hip and with it. They smile back, and she sees their approval of her life and perhaps their future, where they might have kids of their own and still use the same things in their cart which makes them feel super mature. Mom hears Junior tells the clerk about his new light saber. The clerk gives him a sticker. Mom thinks that she deserves a treat for having such a lovely outing with the kids and after loading the bags in the cart she heads right into the Starbucks line. And out into the bright, bright sun….and yes…yes…is it a beautiful day? Yes. Yes it is.

And all those tiny wins, those mom victories next to the college girl victories, next to the working woman victories, oh how you can almost smell the dopamine releasing in their brains. All those women releasing all those happy little pings that will let them know….on those days when the world seems just a little too NO to be fair, a little to “Don’t touch that” to be tolerated, she can find herself daydreaming about the one place that from the moment she steps in the door is yes.

Fellow women of America.
It is not our fault.
We are victim to one of the most extensive cognitive behavioral experiments ever.

Target has created a “yes set” and has changed our feelings about their big box store from negative, local store killing beasts with no heart, to the store that just feels good to be there and we don’t know why. Now, you do know why!

YOU ARE BEING MOLDED INTO THEIR PERFECT CUSTOMER WITH EVERY TRIP YOU TAKE!!!!

Should you accept this?
Should you allow a big business to control you like this?
Should you permit your mind to be changed and feed the addiction it creates?

Well, I for one can say quite clearly, yes….but…I’m not quite sure why I feel so compelled to answer that way…….

***Disclaimer – I do not have any rights to anything Target, except the stuff I bought from Target, which, if I find you snooping around my holiday oven mitts I will put a fight for. I do not work for Target or against Target or super duper near a Target, except relatively, it is closer to a Target than where I used to work. I made that picture on Canva, and the circles aren’t even even like Target’s circles, so it’s only supposed to be reminiscent of Target, but not identical to it, so that seems safe. My views do not represent anyone else’s views, except yours if you totally agree with me. I also am not a psychol-psychia-doctory person and so nothing I said above is to be considered medical advice.  If you have an emergency, please call 911.

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But How Does It End?

A friend and I were talking recently about the deep theological point of omniscience, you know, how God already knows everything and the devastating of the lack of omniscience in ourselves. I know you’ve had the same conversation before. See, I may not know everything, but I know you have had this talk before.

It’s the conversation that follows when something is ahead of us, job offers, proposals, children, test results, healing, or anything that requires us to wait. It is the monologue we deliver when something is upon us, pain, sickness and suffering, trial or temptation. That desire rises up inside us to just know how this all ends.

We tell our friends and we tell God, “I just want to know how this all turns out. I want to know how this is going to be used in my life. Then I will willingly walk through whatever He has for me.” I’ve been there. I’ve seen friend after friend arrive to this point. We are fine and content when the story of our lives is reviewing the setting, introducing the characters, building a background little by little. We are happy to listen as the narrative tells us about the ins and outs of our daily tasks and we happily read through happy times, feasts and family experiences, events and adventures. In fact we’d almost prefer there not be any talk of an ending in those cases. More words about those things, please, more pages, more time.

But onto the scene arrives a villain. Into the picture walks a problem. I am not trying to minimize the absolute horror and terror that can be written in to our lives. We lose loved ones before we think it’s time. We struggle with demons that won’t let us rest in sleep or in waking. We watch people fight battles we can not take from them. We have trials. Big, scary, painful trials.

Then our thumbs drag across the edges of the page flipping page after page, eyes skimming for a word to latch onto which will signal the description of the resolution and the explanation of the purpose. We hit the back cover with frustration, because there just aren’t the words. There aren’t words on the pages yet. They haven’t been written. But not just there. We look out to our friends, to our leaders, to our own understanding and ask why! What is the point of all this!?!? And our friends, our leaders and our own understanding have no words.

So we beg to know the ending. God, if you will just tell me how this turns out. God, if you will just tell me why this is in my life. God, if you…then I. And we flip back through the book hoping to see that lines are forming, letter after letter the answer will appear and we might see the future. But they don’t.

It is enormously frustrating!

A few months ago I heard this story.

“When John Kavanaugh, the noted and famous ethicist, went to Calcutta, he was seeking Mother Teresa … and more. He went for three months to work at “the house of the dying” to find out how best he could spend the rest of his life.

When he met Mother Teresa, he asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she replied. He then uttered the request he had carried thousands of miles: “Clarity. Pray that I have clarity.”

“No,” Mother Teresa answered, “I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said that she always seemed to have clarity, the very kind of clarity he was looking for, Mother Teresa laughed and said: “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

This story was shared just days before I would come upon one of my own flip to the end times. Tell me what to do, God! Be clear with me! Send me a sign, a map, an angel who spells it out for me. But no, not clarity. Trust.

Back on that riverbank in that conversation I heard words come out of my mouth that I knew I’d need to write down. Not because they were particularly special, well formed and brilliant. Rather, because I know I will need to remember them later.

I told my friend to write down her story. To get a journal and write down this experience so that in a few months she could look back through her journal and see all that He has done.

But first, to know this.

When you ask God to write your story, when you allow Him to read it over your life….you already know the ending. It is going to be a happy ending. It is going to work out for His glory and our gain. Every. Single. Time. You can trust this.

I suggested she find a journal and on the front page write “And they lived happily ever after….what follows here is how it happened.”

Friends, it is advice I need to heed. I do not have some deeper knowledge of the future which gives me secret clarity or some ultra-faith that in unattainable to the masses. I sit on my own riverbank, in my car, on my computer, at my desk, on steps, in a friend’s office. The background to this situation changes, but the story is the same. I find myself explaining why God should let me in on the plan, why it’d be ok this time for Him to reveal more knowledge to me. And time and time again He leads me to the same sentence in my book…

They lived happily ever after.

And then He tells me to sit back and let Him get back to reading.

There is in this life or the next wholeness, happiness and healing beyond anything we can know here on this broken ground. There is hope and a future. There are plans to prosper us.  Do you know this? Do you?

Then you know the ending!

They lived happily ever after.

Now hush, child, and let Him read.