Why We Shop: The Neuropsychology of Consumption

Bret S. Stetka, MD; Kit Yarrow, PhD


November 19, 2014

In This Article

Editor's Note:
The reasons for shopping might seem simple: acquiring goods that provide enjoyment, assist with everyday life and activities, or meet a cultural expectation (eg, gift-giving). But the work of neuroscientists and consumer psychologists suggests that the motivations driving purchasing and consuming are more complex. With the holiday season upon us, Medscape spoke with consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, PhD, about the neuropsychologic influences associated with shopping.

Why Do We Shop?

Medscape: What is a consumer psychologist, and how did you find your way to the field?

Dr. Yarrow: My training is as a clinical psychologist, and that's what I teach as a professor at Golden Gate University -- things like family therapy and psychopathology. I'm a jointly appointed professor of both psychology and marketing, and my research is in consumer psychology. I don't lay people on the couch and talk to them about why they buy things. I'm not that kind of psychologist. I use my skills as a psychologist to understand the motivation to buy.

Medscape: On the basis of your research and observations, why do we buy things? What are some of our motivations?

Dr. Yarrow: I just finished a new book on that subject, Decoding the New Consumer Mind, so a short summary might be hard! I suppose if I were to narrow it down to the one most important thing, I would say that buying usually involves relationships in one way or another. The motivation for almost everything we buy has something to do with connecting with other human beings. Even when it comes to practical purchases, the particular brand or product we choose relates to our connections with other human beings.

Medscape: I know this isn't your area of expertise, but in terms of psychiatric or psychological conditions or disorders, what's been linked with shopping behaviors, either as a cause or an effect?

Dr. Yarrow: You're right; I don't directly research shopping addictions or compulsive shopping. I'm not a specialist in the disorders around shopping. However, in my new book I do talk a lot about, and document pretty carefully, increases in anxiety, societal anger, individualism, and loneliness. I'm not classifying them as pathologies, but more just shifts toward negative psychological states.

These shifts have definitely affected how we shop and how we buy. For example, I'm saying that everyone approaches the marketplace with more anxiety because as a culture, we're a more anxious group of people. People feel less trusting of everything: schools, businesses, government, the media. At the same time, they're less connected to and nurtured by other people in their community. Many of these relationships have been disintermediated by our use of technology.

People therefore have higher levels of anxiety, and we know that people process information differently and make decisions in different ways when they're anxious. So when they shop, they're a bit more defensive; they start from a position of distrust, and therefore retailers have to do more to win their interest and loyalty.

Medscape: What are some potential relationship-driven motivations to shop, whether conscious or unconscious?

Dr. Yarrow: There are so many. I think there are some very fundamental ways that people use shopping as a way to connect with other people. For example, our use of technology has turned us into speed demons when it comes to processing information. We want it fast and therefore rely more on symbols and visual data to inform our perceptions. We also look for symbols to understand other people -- what people are wearing, what they own, and what brands they attach to are shorthand ways of understanding and communicating with other people.

I also see a lot of people using shopping as a way of calming their anxiety. For example, if you're going through any life-stage transition, from getting married to having a baby, I think shopping is used as a way to mentally prepare and calm anxiety. As people go through the process of selecting products, they are mentally visualizing their new future. In a way, it's like runners and athletes who use visualization to enhance their performance.


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