08. Neuroscience

Why Shopping Makes you Feel High

December 22, 2022

We’ve entered the busiest shopping season of the year. At every turn, stores are trying to seduce you with enticing deals and alluring merchandise. Doesn’t it seem too easy to get a rush while holiday shopping? Or get a thrill when you see that coveted item for 75% off?

If you’ve experienced these feelings, you’re not alone. In fact, our brains are chemically programmed to respond to sales. For some of us, signs shouting one-day-only sale, clearance and 50% off, are not so different from the siren call for other types of addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, or even food.

Dopamine Rush

You don’t even have to be diagnosed as a shopaholic to experience a rush while shopping. That’s why even the casual shopper finds it challenging to exercise self-control at the cash register. Researchers at Stanford found that when you see pictures of items you’d like to buy, a region of your brain with dopamine receptors is activated.

In general, dopamine receptors are activated when you experience something new, exciting or challenging. This could range from eating something tasty to winning a competitive game. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them.

So when you see sales items while shopping, it triggers a sensation of instant gratification. The more you feel good about a sale, the more likelihood you will continue to shop. But afterwards, similar to alcoholics or drug addicts, intense feelings of guilt may arise. To get that high again, however, we go back for more.

Irrationality and Impulse

Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses. In reality, we typically decide on a purchase in a split second, without much rational thought. When attracted to the sales tag, we don’t employ the usual process of weighing the outcome.

The same type of thought, for instance, that helps us avoid sloppiness in a work presentation or think twice about reckless behaviour. These types of decisions are often made subconsciously.  During purchase excitement, there is a spike in brainwaves that occurs. It results in “emotional engagement” in a specific product.

In most cases, those impulses are triggered by our previous experiences with specific brands. They can also be triggered when we spot items on our wish list. A lot of us are not necessarily addicted to the things we buy, but rather to the thrill of the hunt. MRI studies of brain activity suggest that surges in dopamine levels are linked much more with anticipation of an experience, rather than the actual experience. Consequently, feelings of wellbeing begin when a shopper just thinks about shopping. This can occur days or even weeks before they even head to the store.

Fight or Flight Response

During a sale, the body’s autonomic nervous system (the system that triggers our fight or flight response) reflexively takes control of some organs. As a result, a heightened response in the body is created, similar to the one early humans had when encountering predators. It can be difficult to control your impulse to buy an attractive item, when your brain is switched into “competitive mode.”

This occurs due to the fear of missing out on a purchase; if you don’t buy it, someone else will. Known as the loss aversion theory, sales drive a compulsion to buy an item, because it presents the threat of a loss. As a result, we irrationally overvalue losses approximately twice as much as gains.

On the other hand, some shoppers experience a slower heart rate, less anxiety and exhilaration while shopping. We’ve all heard about “retail therapy” as a means to relax and escape from daily problems.

Thrill of the Hunt

This holiday season, go ahead and indulge in a few sales items. Remember though, that it’s easy to trigger that motivation to search for coveted items. Shopping feels similar to a treasure hunt. But, you may be overestimating the amount of pleasure you will receive once you’ve found the item you want to purchase. Bear that in mind before you start splurging on your credit card. Happy hunting!

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