Why We Shop: The Neuropsychology of Consumption

Bret S. Stetka, MD; Kit Yarrow, PhD


November 19, 2014

In This Article

"Retail Therapy" and Neuroimaging Findings

Medscape: Going back to your anxiety example, does this mean that the old "retail therapy" cliché has some truth?

Dr. Yarrow: Yes. I wrote an article about that for Time[1] -- about how shopping really can be therapeutic. In addition to preparation, it's also a way to express creativity. Online browsing is used by a number of the consumers I've interviewed as a little break, and of course it's also a conversation starter and a way for people to connect with others.

Medscape: Neuroimaging research[2] has reported spikes in reward-circuit dopamine activity related to shopping, similar to those seen in addictive behaviors, such as drug use and overeating. Is there an addictive component to shopping in some people?

Dr. Yarrow: I do think that there are a lot of people who rely on the dopamine rush that comes with finding a bargain or something special as a way to add a little bit of oomph to their life. I think that's probably the most problematic aspect of shopping: that people become almost, I think, addicted to the bargain hunt.

Medscape: Stampeding to the mall on Black Friday: Is it some combination of thrill- or reward-seeking, along with affecting our relationships with friends and family (eg, buying them a gift)? Or knowing the holidays are coming, could the motivation be less complex: They just want to save money?

Dr. Yarrow: I think there is a really wide variety of people who like to shop on a day such as Black Friday. In my interviews, I've found that some fall into the camp who are really bargain-crazy -- those who think they're going to be the one to get that giant television for $100, and if they do, they feel like winners. There's a thrill in it for them; it's almost competitive-sport shopping. But I do think this group is the minority of Black Friday shoppers. I don't think that most Black Friday shoppers are compulsive or that their shopping is pathological in any way.

That said, there is a growing association between holiday cues and spending rewards (such as the dopamine rush of what's perceived to be a tremendous discount or a guilt-free indulgence). In a Pavlovian way, shoppers are responding to spending cues that have been reinforced though years of discounting by retailers. A healthy percentage of the shoppers I've interviewed are therefore spending significantly on themselves because they strongly associate this time of year with competitive pricing. They may have put off a winter coat purchase until the holiday season, assuming (correctly) that there would be a bigger selection and more competitive prices. Another small point is that the positive emotions that consumers feel when they score a deal do tend to loosen purse strings; people spend more optimistically and freely once they start.

Back to relationships, I think for many people it's a tradition. It's something that they've always done. People are off from work that day, and some are with extended family; it becomes an event greater than just shopping. It's the kick-off to the holiday season: visiting Santa, window decorations, the lighting of tree. I think the social aspects of it are very important to a lot of people.

So we've got our competitive-sport shoppers and our holiday tradition shoppers. But of course, we don't live in a Normal Rockwell society anymore. Every year, we have a growing number of people who live alone. We have a lot of people who don't necessarily have families nearby, and so it's also simply a social activity. Shopping is way to get out and about and interact with people.

Medscape: Research shows that much of the pleasure derived from rewarding behaviors is often more associated with the anticipation of a behavior (eg, taking a drug or gambling) than with the behavior itself. I would imagine the same is true for shopping in some people?

Dr. Yarrow: Yes, absolutely. For example, I think the anticipation of Black Friday as the day when there will be good deals is strong. Cyber Monday, too -- people shop because they anticipate bargains. It's contributed to a tradition, and the anticipation is part of the excitement. In other realms of shopping and buying, the thrill of the purchase is extended when people spend time thinking about buying in advance; the brain registers the feeling almost as if it were happening in the moment, which naturally gives you extra minutes of juice.

Medscape: Shopping has also been linked with amygdala activation, suggesting an emotional component to shopping. Any number of activities can resonate emotionally for people, but generally speaking, what have you learned from your research and observations about the relationship between shopping and emotion?

Dr. Yarrow: When it comes to Black Friday, I'd say the biggest threat to shoppers would be what happens to our bodies when we get in stressful situations -- that is, the autonomic nervous system arousal that accompanies being in crowded, stressful places or experiencing a fear of missing out. Shoppers often get home and wonder why they bought what they bought. They weren't thinking logically amidst the hyperarousal and stress.

I think retailers rely on this. I always recommend to consumers that they wait 20 minutes until their body relaxes, and their mind can start taking over again before they make a purchase. Or to resist buying things that they can't return.

Another thing that's problematic about Black Friday is the investment of time standing in line and getting up at 4:00 in the morning. It means that people want to see a return: They're determined to purchase something. This is true for outlet malls, too.


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