The science behind impulsive shopping and decision-making

By Charlotte Chui and Brenna Chen

With the chilly weather and holiday festivities, it’s becoming apparent that the holidays are fast approaching. For some, it may be welcomed as an eager respite from the strenuous school year, while for others, it may be cherished as a time for family and friends. But for many, the holiday season can be summed up in four words: shop ‘til you drop.

The holiday season is a time to join the masses of rushed shoppers, cram in crowded malls and enjoy flashy television advertisements. Whether it be buying gifts for friends and family or taking advantage of holiday sales, decision-making and psychology play a central role in the science behind holiday shopping. 

A Cause of Happiness

It is well known that many enjoy shopping due to the rush of pleasure they receive which, recent research shows, is stimulated by various chemicals such as dopamine. According to a study by Salk Institute researchers Jean-Marc Fellous and Roland E. Suri, dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain’s substantia nigra and ventral tegmental, then released by the hypothalamus. 

The areas of the brain highlighted in purple each play a different role as a part of the brain’s dopamine pathways. After dopamine is produced in the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area, it is released in the nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex and striatum. Photo from National Institutes of Health.

Dopamine, known as the happy hormone, is responsible for the rush experienced after acing a test. A release of dopamine is also what triggers the positive response many, including sophomore Claire Ko, experience when shopping.

“I like shopping because it gives me a sense of satisfaction,” Ko said. “It makes me feel excited because there’s so much to look at, and there’s so many possibilities.”

Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?

Although purchasing an item may offer short-term perks, such as a rush of pleasure, giving in to this urge may not always be the smartest decision. This is because that urge may be due to decision fatiguea concept that explains how after a long day of fending off temptations, the quality of a person’s decisions grow poorer and poorer.

Every person has a limited amount of mental stamina, as John Tierney writes for the New York Times. But every time a shopper forces themselves not to buy that shirt or resist that urge to try on that jacket, their willpower decreases, a little at a time—and by the end of a shopping spree, it’s almost completely gone, explaining why some people impulsively shop when they are tired or stressed. This phenomenon—called decision fatigue—affects everyone and explains why people, including Ko, steadily make poorer and poorer decisions the longer we shop.

“I usually buy more after I’ve shopped for a while,” Ko said. “At the beginning, I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s probably more interesting things [to buy].’ But then after I’ve shopped for a while, I just get tired. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and then I just buy stuff.”

This same pattern was also reflected in an experiment run by Baumeister and Twenge at Florida State University. College students were told to make a series of small choices on what item they wished to take home, while others simply observed the objects. Interestingly enough, the students who made a series of decisions lasted less than half the amount of time holding their hands in ice water than those who did not make decisions, indicating weaker willpower of the former group. This revealed that making all those decisions, despite how insignificant, drained the students’ mental stamina, enough that there was a noticeable difference in self control afterwards.

While shopping, people make countless small decisions—some conscious and some not. Ironically the act of fending off temptations makes a person more vulnerable to the next temptation, eventually to the point where people can no longer make the best or most logical decision.

Decision fatigue is a portion of the enigma behind impulsive shopping, but while buying a new shirt or pair of jeans may feel good at first, but the satisfaction of buying that item soon fades, as freshman Serena Liu observes. 

“But then [after shopping],” Liu said, “I feel like I should have bought more.”

Studies suggest that this is because the act of buying an item is not necessarily what triggers the release of dopamine; it’s the anticipation. To test this idea, neuroscientist Gregory S. Berns and his team conducted an experiment by giving small amounts of fruit juice to twenty five adults. The results were surprising: there was more brain activity when the fruit juice was administered unpredictably rather than in a predictable, steady pattern, despite being given the same overall stimuli.

This study unearthed a shocking revelation: the act of anticipating the reward brings more pleasure than actually receiving the reward. It also explains why the happiness elicited when purchasing an item is temporary and why many, such as  immediately choose to buy more after making the first purchase—they are chasing that rush of dopamine and pleasure obtained not from buying an item but anticipating.

“I don’t shop frequently,” Liu said. “But when I do, I buy a lot.”

Though the release of dopamine is associated with happiness, research also suggests a correlation between the presence of dopamine and impulsive decision making. Using fMRI, Vanderbilt researchers David Zald and Joshua Buckholtz found that dopamine levels in more impulsive participants were four times as high as those who were less impulsive. This may offer an additional explanation as to why many, including Liu, tend to purchase many items at once while shopping.

The Impact

After being impacted by decision fatigue, a person usually copes in two ways: making hasty decisions or simply refusing to make any decisions at all. Those who end up making rash decisions turn out to be the impulsive buyers, the short-tempered, the people binging on snacks in the middle of the night. Other effects of decision fatigue also include lethargy and decreased ability to function. At the end of a shopping spree, people are not only physically but also mentally drained.

In fact, this concept has been acknowledged and even manipulated to the advantage of marketers and retail workers. One example can be seen in how stores always place candy bars and chips near the checkout counter. After a period of decision making, a shopper’s mental stamina drops dangerously low, and shops take advantage of this to attack them in a moment of vulnerability. Another example is how some retail workers can manipulate a customer into buying a pricier item depending on how worn out they are, as sophomore Jessica Lee experienced.

“If you talk to [retail workers],” Lee said, “you can become influenced by their decisions.”

As for those who impulsively shop for the rush it brings, shoppers should be aware that happiness often results from the anticipation of buying, rather than the actual result. Knowing this, customers can actively challenge their impulsive decisions to buy an item. Well informed shoppers make better decisions because they are more likely to stop and question themselves on whether or not a purchase is the wisest, long term decision.

Finding a Solution

There are some ways to prevent poor decision-making, such as making sure you’re well-fed, well-rested and aren’t worn out after making tough decisions. You can also try scheduling tasks that require more mental stamina first and make sure never to make big decisions late at night. However, despite following the advice above, it’s often difficult for a person to make objective judgements about themselves. Therefore, when in doubt and if all else fails, take the advice of social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, and don’t make any big decisions.

“The best decision makers,” Baumeister said, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

Although the concept of decision fatigue may not provide a cure for this issue, it is surely a start and may lead to countless more discoveries on resisting temptations. Additionally, awareness about how the release of dopamine while shopping affects the brain is essential. Knowing how retail workers leverage this information to their advantage is the first step to making well informed decisions, whether it be in daily life or during this season’s holiday shopping rush. 

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