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The Science of G.A.S.

A look at the reasons behind Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.), when people get hooked on buying camera equipment they don't need

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People will do just about anything to alleviate their anxiety. During the last year of writing my doctoral thesis, the worry about being able to finish grew increasingly heavy. The relentless grind of research, constantly being told that your work is inadequate, and believing that 80-hour workweeks are average has its tolls on all students. Once you reach the edge of this process and are pulverized into oblivion, you get a nice, shiny PhD.

You may be wondering what got me through this. The answer? Buying a ton of camera equipment. To photographers, this type of retail therapy is known as gear acquisition syndrome. Someone with this syndrome impulsively buys cameras and related gear, amassing more camera gear than they can realistically use.

In this article, I will show how gear acquisition syndrome can alter our brain’s reward and stress systems. I will describe the brain regions that underlie reward processing (e.g., those erotic happy feelings related to buying, oh, say a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 with a 18mm equivalent Zeiss Touit lens, shoe mount flash, and leather case), impulse control, and how stress causes an imbalance between the brain regions associated with reward and stress. I’ll also discuss how uncertainties inherent in the creative processes increase stress and how compulsively buying camera gear can serve as a coping mechanism to alleviate this anxiety.

How Dopamine Modulates Reward Seeking and Impulsivity

When something rewarding or negative happens, we change our behaviors to increase the likelihood of reward and decrease the likelihood of harm. This type of learning is called behavioral reinforcement and it is pivotal to helping humans survive in the world.

VTA NAc Stress3

Much of the neuroscience research on reward-based behavioral reinforcement focuses on three brain regions: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens (NAc), and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The VTA makes and releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is naturally released by the VTA when something rewarding happens, such as scratching a winning lottery ticket, winning first place in a photo contest, eating an amazing cookie, having an orgasm…you get the picture.

The NAc is often referred to as the reward-processing center. When the VTA is activated by a reward, dopamine is released in the NAc leading to a rewarding feeling. Depending on the value of the reward (e.g., that first click of a new camera might be more rewarding than an orgasm for some, and vice versa for others), the feeling can range from joy to pure ecstasy.

Last, the PFC functions, in part, to control impulsive reward seeking. When a reward occurs the PFC also receives dopamine, which increases our attention towards the events that led to the reward, allowing us later to find the stuff we know will give us happy feelings.

Although the PFC is important in locating rewards, it is also necessary for inhibiting us from impulsively seeking those rewards. For example, when you have a hard deadline due at 5PM, it’s helpful to inhibit your desire to go to a bar at 9AM, make some risky bets at the dog track, and then pass out on the bus on your way home. The PFC inhibits impulsive reward seeking by directly modulating the NAc and VTA.

Impulse Inhibition

Stress affects our desire to seek out rewards. When something stressful happens, the body responds by releasing stress hormones. These hormones are released throughout the body and brain. Stress hormones decrease our ability to inhibit impulsive behaviors and increase our desire to find rewards. Because of stress, we are sometimes unable to control desire for rewards that alleviate stress. Below, I will talk about a potential source of stress that promotes gear acquisition syndrome.

Fearing Creativity

What are some stressors that alter the reward-inhibition balance in the brain of a photographer? There are many, but one source of stress may be from the uncertainties that are part of the creative process. Starting a new photography project often means that we are entering uncharted territory, which may bring up insecurities because we are choosing to expose ourselves to failure.

Olivier Duong captured this well when he wrote recently that:

I then realized what was happening, I was insecure in my photography so I was finding it in cameras. When you get a new camera you feel like you can take on Eugene Smith or something. But after the high, I needed my next fix to hide my insecurities. That’s why I could never have enough cameras.

The fear to create can be debilitating and prevent one from even starting a new project or taking photographs. There are two psychological concepts that could explain this type of behavior. The first concept is called catastrophic thinking and the other is anxiety-induced avoidance behavior.

Catastrophic thinking is a type of cognitive distortion in which someone overemphasizes the worst possible outcomes when starting (or thinking about starting) something new. Catastrophic thinking can contribute to stress and impede our willingness to try something new (i.e., behavioral avoidance – discussed below). This type of thinking is demonstrated well by photographers David Bayles and Ted Orland in their book Art & Fear:

Fears about artmaking fall into two families: fears about yourself, and fears about your reception by others…Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail.

scream

Avoidance behaviors are one way (albeit not always a health way) to try to prevent anxiety. Generally, avoidance behaviors occur when one is concerned about their inabilities and others’ judgment. Again, Bayles and Orland:

Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! Annihilation is an existential fear: the common—but sharply overdrawn—fear that some part of you dies when you stop making art

This quote highlights how someone might avoid photography to avoid anxiety related to failure and judgment – and how avoidance can be a maladaptive coping mechanism because photography is generally pretty meaningful to photographers.

If the stress related to fear of failure is strong enough, it can alter the function of the reward system. Specifically, it decreases the ability to inhibit impulses and enhances reward-seeking behavior as a way to cope with stress.

Buying Gear to Ease the Pain

Imagine that you want to start a new project but feel overwhelmed about initiating it. Perhaps negative thoughts start to creep in, which creates more negative thoughts, which snowball into catastrophic thinking and avoidance. Why start when you will expose yourself to all those feelings of stress for what you’re sure will be failure? Instead, you might make yourself feel better by buying a new camera, which is an easily justifiable (given that you’re a photographer) and stress-reducing reward.

GearThe joy of buying new gear is short lived. Let’s face it; getting used to a new toy happens pretty fast. This process is called habituation, which is the simplest type of learning. After new gear is purchased we habituate to it and then seek new rewards that are often bigger and better, which is similar to drug abuse.

Drugs induce a high, but after continued use the high becomes smaller and smaller. In order to feel the high as it once was, it’s necessary to consume a greater amount of the drug. For the photographer the high of buying something new will eventually lead to habituation. This may in turn lead to purchases that are more frequent or greater in cost as a way to combat the habituation.

It does not help that camera manufactures churn out new cameras for every conceivable market possible and, with the help of photography blogs, sensationalize the new technology. There’s an endless supply of gear to buy and when acquiring gear is used to reduce anxiety, a vicious stress-reward cycle sets in leading to gear acquisition syndrome.

Confronting the Challenge

Overcoming gear acquisition syndrome will not be easy and it is something that will  always have to be attended to as a photographer. The onslaught of new gear, choosing to create, exposing oneself to failure is difficult and buying new things won’t solve these problems. Studies show that spending money on objects can be very rewarding but only for an incredibly short period of time.

One way by which joy increases and is maintained is through finding new experiences, creating new memories and giving meaning to those memories. An example would be going on a vacation with a loved one and if you’re like me your loved one learns to bring several books (sorry wife).

It takes courage to create and the anxiety will always be there. Overcoming fear is part of this process and in the end finding personal success with life’s challenges is rewarding.

Hi, my name is Josh and I have gear acquisition syndrome.


Image credit: Gear by Sigurbjörn


 
  • Brian

    *Acquisition :)

  • Lord Caveman

    It’s interesting to see GAS explained from a somewhat more scientific side. Thanks for the insightful post!

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “Dopamine is naturally released by the VTA when something rewarding happens, such as scratching a winning lottery ticket, winning first
    place in a photo contest, eating an amazing cookie, having an orgasm…you get the picture.”

    I suppose we could avoid G.A.S. altogether if we could somehow develop a fetish for learning instead.

    “How about a trade? My 24-70 for that thick and sexy guidebook on photographic lighting?”

  • Ralph Hightower

    Hmm, I may have to have my “man card” taken away from me since I talked my wife out of buying me a DSLR a few Christmases ago. I found that her budget was a Canon T3i. But knowing my wife, this would probably be the last DSLR that I owned. I did research and I found the Canon 60D. Then I settled on the 7D. As a consolation for not getting a DSLR, she bought me a used Canon FD 28mm f2.8 lens for my Canon A-1 that I bought new 33 years ago. Prior to 3 years ago, my range was limited to 50 through 400, with some gaps in between. The 28 has become my favorite lens.
    A few weeks ago, my wife and I were talking and I mentioned that a company had a Canon New F-1 for sale. She said “That was top of the line.” “Yup”, so we bought it and added the AE Motor Drive FN, as well as 12% center metering and 3% center metering focusing screens. My lenses for the A-1 also work on the F-1.

    I am looking at getting other Canon FD mount lenses. I won’t be using a Canon FD 85-300mm lens everyday, but I could use it for a practice round of The Masters 2014 golf tournament; the 70-210 would be more suited for everyday use.
    But my current gear has served me well. At a local camera club that I am a member of, there was a three-way tie for first until the final series from a member for the photojournalism contest (title slide plus up to 7 photographs) were displayed. I placed second.
    I’ll be loaded with Kodak Ektar (ISO 100) and possibly Kodak Portra 400 for April 2014.

  • Zeke

    They have people who you pay so they listen when you need to talk. They’re called Psychiatrists. You should look into.

    They might be able to help with that man card too.

  • Ascott

    Hiii Jooosh :)

  • Ronald

    I will now show this to my wife.

  • Arnal Photography

    I have to say that I “buy” your rationalization as being far more plausible in mot cases than this scientific case study.
    From my experience, it seems that, particularly amateurs but some pros as well, buy new equipment because “it’s top of the line” and therefore somehow “better” than what they already have and in extending the thought, will make them “better photographers”. In some cases it actually is, and then, go for it.
    As an example… I was shooting with a Kodak Pro SLR-N for about 9 years (on rare occasions renting a Hasselblad H3D for a few jobs where it was required to meet some specific of the assignment), selling my work to all sorts of clients… then along came the Nikon D800. I now own two of them (one as a backup)! But the reason for the purchase had more to do with dynamic range, image quality, noise levels and pixel count than that it was the newest and greatest thing. I passed on a LOT of those opportunities over 9 years with my trusty Kodak.
    Getting back to my point, yes, buying gear may to one degree or another play into the “fearing creativity” discussion. I think it’s a bit divergent from that though in that it’s not a fear of being creative but rather a delusion that with this new “toy” it will somehow handle the creativity for me to some degree. Yes, it’s a small differentiation, but I think an important one.
    There is also the “the pros (or the person who just beat me in the camera club contest) have them so I have to have one to be “better” and maybe win in the future. This extends to your assertion, and maybe rationalization, that you should buy the new 85 – 300 for an opportunity that you may experience relatively infrequently. How about following the “pro mindset” and renting one for probably $25/day to get the photos at that event and putting the rest of those hundreds to thousands of dollars to use elsewhere? That way too you still get the rush of being seen with the uuber cool lens and don’t have the let down after the fact.
    Best of luck to you in winning the title next time at your club contest!

  • Stanco55

    Once within the digital camera realm, you are remorselessly imprisoned and harangued by the never ending updates of: newer, better, faster, neater. There is no escape, no solace, no compromise…

  • Gorji

    Very nice article.

  • Ralph Hightower

    I’ve done some preliminary research on golf photography and a lens with a reach to 400mm is recommended. I don’t know what vantage point I will have inside the yellow rope at The Masters, but I figure that one body with a 28mm and the other with an 85-300 will do what I want. I have a 80-205, but that may not be sufficient. I have a 400mm lens, but I won’t be using that because of its lack of flexibility in range and also metering.
    The F-1 was top of the line in the 80′s, but it still works as does my 33 year old camera. I don’t know if a Canon !-Dx will still work 30 years from now. Sure, I’d like to own one. Can I afford it? No.
    Lenses are tools. I would love to have a fisheye and an ultra wide angle. But since I’ve had the 28, it’s been my most often used lens. I reckon that I’m making up for lost time.
    I wish that I could rent Canon FD mount lenses, but they are no longer manufactured; it’s all Canon EOS mount and there’s not an EOS male to FD female adapter.
    DSLRs do have the advantage of being able to change ISO in mid stream. I sure would’ve liked that on July 21, 2011 when I photographed the final Space Shuttle landing 200 yards from the runway; I used ISO400 B&W film underexposed two stops and it was not fast enough for the pre-dawn landing. But, from the tail fin and the parachute deploy, one could spot Atlantis.
    Thank you for wishing me luck in next year’s contest. I wouldn’t feel right about using the same venue as this year for next year, even though I will use color film in 2013. With The Masters practice round, I know what my contest entry will be for next year.
    PS:
    This year, I’ll be using the F-1 with the spot metering focusing screen to see if I can defeat the backlighting situation of the band under the tent. The A-1 is center-weighted and I’ve experimented with compensating for the backlight.

  • Syuaip

    G.A.S. Anonymous

  • darylcheshire

    Isn’t that retail therapy?

  • Travis J.

    I totally feel you, Ralph. I’ve caved in to and then sold off every digital SLR and mirrorless I’ve gotten (3, total) because it’d be such a shame to have all the nice Canon FD glass just sitting there. But now with things like FF-NEX and lens turbo speed booster out on the market, I’m starting to feel GAS for digital set in again.

  • Desko

    My God, I have GAS…

  • Red John

    I too, have GAS problem. My wife can smell it 10 meters away.

  • kshapero

    It is still GAS alas.

  • Pete Charlesworth

    Interesting points – although the term ‘photographer’ historically insinuates a professional (i.e. someone who makes some sort of living, or genuine finished art, from photography. The term ‘photographer’ is an aspirational myth for many people, particularly the enthusiast. In this context “GAS” is the cart before the horse (a horse that simply does not exist). I.e. “I am a photographer” – um, if you say so. Where is the “camera-gear-line’ that a consumer can cross before claiming ‘photographer’ status? For many people, aspiration is also what drives spending on gear, not just anxiety, fear or dopamine.

    From a business point of view, working photographers need a broad range of gear to offer sound, diverse solutions. One can’t happen in most cases without the other. How would a PR or marketing manager respond to their commission showing up with a mirrorless camera, and one pop our reflector in a handbag to shoot their premium product launch brief?

    Working photographers are more often than not very happy (Dopamine is released) to broaden their equipment base and diversify/improve their product. These days it is a must to do so to not only compete, but to find new ways to differentiate. New gear means new work… a bloody good reason to be happy.

  • Craig Swinson

    Funny I’ve looked at most of the pictures shown for the gear and thought that’s prolly not enough for most of the jobs I shoot. If you buy the gear to get the job done that needs to be done, and not just for the sake of gear, you can have as much gear as you need.

    Buy the gear because of need, not because of want.

  • faloc

    Though some professional photographers might need all that gear for different shoots, and no I dont have GAS.

  • MAP2 Photography

    Not only is this true with cameras and photo equipment, I feel like it is true with cars and go-fast stuff.

    I have such expensive hobbies…

  • Wallace

    Guess I need to go buy a lottery ticket so I can afford G.A.S.

  • Mako

    I don’t get it? What’s the problem … :-)

  • Neil Tsubota

    I thought “I” was the only ‘normal’ person around here ! ….grin…

  • http://www.JasonJosephStudio.com/ Jason Joseph

    I just wrote an article for Light It Magazine and touched upon much of what you talk about here.
    Mainly fear is at play.
    Steven Pressfield wrote about it in his book The War of Art
    And its the plague of any creative endeavor.
    We are an addictive species. We are easily addicted to any sensation .. including pain.
    Wonderfully written.
    Thank you for sharing.
    These are the things we need to pass along to those looking to learn.
    THe how to’s are a plenty.
    The why’s and the how comes… are what need attention.
    Spirituality and inner light as an artist are what when once learned how to tap into…can set any artist apart from the pack.

  • Flossy

    Trouble is I can’t stop learning, but as i’m at college, Mature student ) and see the new technology, I want it, started doing film, I have the gear, looking at vintage cameras, I have over 30 dating back to 1880 all shoved in a huge box, but i have got them and will never sell them, banned from looking at lenses, made to fell that ebay is a porn site, does anyone think I may have G.A.S.

  • FrankfurterSausage

    I believe that this article explains very well deseases I felt 10 to 30 years ago each time I had to create from scratch a new computer program !