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Water Cooler: Why do we impulse buy?

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 5, 2021

The bargain bins at the entrance of the store. The candy and magazine racks at the store check-out. The related item suggestions at the bottom of your online shopping cart. It is all there waiting for your impulse to strike.

Or maybe you can’t relate. Maybe you scoff at those who fall for such an obvious trap. You are the savvy shopper, on the look for only the best of deals and offers to help soften the blow when you decide to hand over your hard-earned cash.

Whatever kind of shopper you might be, retailers and marketing teams know how to tempt you into an impulse purchase either way. There are different tricks for different personalities, all with the goal to squeeze a few more dollars from your wallet than you originally meant to spend.

Many psychologists agree with the theory that impulse buying and other impulse behavior is due to a battle between a few parts of the brain: the nucleus accumbens, the insula and the mesial prefrontal cortex.

The nucleus accumbens activates proportionally to how excited you are in anticipation of obtaining whatever it is that you want. This region also activates the primary reward drives, which is a group of reward stimuli related to facilitating survival, such as food.

The insula, also called the insular cortex, is involved with a lot of processes involving emotion. This is the part that reacts to the price tag. The larger the price tag, the more activated the insula becomes. Psychologists have dubbed this negative sensation as “the pain of paying.”

This is pretty spot on, as the insula also activates when we anticipate physical pain or when we are exposed to negative stimuli such as an awful smell.

The mesial prefrontal cortex reacts to the price of a good or service as well, but especially when we are under the impression that we’re about to get a great deal. This structure in the brain is involved with higher-order executive functions, such as reasoning and problem-solving.

A 2008 study titled, “Neural predictors of purchases,” monitored the brains of participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while making simulated purchasing decisions. They found that when they flashed an image of a product in front of a participant, the first part of the brain activates as the nucleus accumbens. When the showed the participant the price of the object, the mesial prefrontal cortex activated. The larger the difference between the actual price and the participants opinion of the actual value, the more activation in that structure. When the participant decided against making a purchase, the insular fired up.

Some psychologists have suggested the idea of a “pain of paying spectrum” to be able to evaluate how much it irks each individual to spend money. On one end are the “spendthrifts” who experience hardly any pain when spending, versus the “tightwads” on the other end who are hesitant to make purchases for even necessities at time because of how much they hate to effectively lose money to a purchase.

The surprise twist is that because “tightwads” hate spending so much, it actually makes them more vulnerable to certain marketing tactics that try to make you feel like you’re getting a great deal. The secret impulse of a “tightwad” is that they tend to jump at anything that could possibly lessen the pain of buying. This can be something as simple as labeling a $5 delivery fee as a “small $5 fee.” This language doesn’t affect “spendthrifts” as much because they are likely to spend extra money on delivery anyway.

Just about anyone is susceptible to persuasive marketing from time to time, but learning more about what drives your impulse buying might help you outsmart those sales tactics next time around.

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