Why We Shop: The Neuropsychology of Consumption

SCIENCE, 2 Dec 2013

Bret S. Stetka, MD & Kit Yarrow, PhD, Medscape – TRANSCEND Media Service

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.

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.

“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.

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.

Odors, Colors, and a Gender Divide

Medscape: What techniques do marketers and retailers use to coax us into shopping and buying?

Dr. Yarrow: Without a doubt, retailers know that the brain capacity of shoppers, especially on Black Friday, is a little more limited, so they’re going to rely on symbolic cues and sensory input to help guide decision-making. I think what consumers might not be aware of is that major retailers are really knowledgeable about how we process symbols, everything from colors to particular words. They use smells. They use music. They know that when people touch things, they’re more likely to buy them. They know that things located in the center of a display are more likely to be purchased. They know all of these things.

Consumers don’t, though. Shoppers think they’re being logical in their choices, and they don’t necessarily know, for example, that when they see red they unconsciously process “cheaper,” or that when one product is located by itself, they unconsciously register “special and expensive.” Symbolic cues, flooding the senses, eliciting a fear of missing out with bargains — consumers think they’re immune to these tactics, but I’ve seen very few who actually are immune.

Medscape: How about those overly chatty or overly pushy sellers?! Does this actually work?

Dr. Yarrow: No; they’re falling out of favor. Consumer backlash on that has been pretty strong; it’s related to the trust issue I mentioned earlier. It’s also one of the reasons why a lot of people shop online: They don’t like being assaulted by salespeople or pressured in a store. They want help when they need help, and not a moment before and not a moment after. Retailers are struggling with how to give people information at exactly the point they need it and not overdo it.

Medscape: One more question, Dr. Yarrow: How do men and women shop differently, including across generations?

Dr. Yarrow: They shop much differently, although it’s converging a little bit. Younger men tend to enjoy shopping more than older generations of men. They grew up in malls, and they’re more comfortable with and acculturated to shopping environments; whereas it feels more foreign to baby-boomer men, and they’re less comfortable with it.

Still, if you look at all men — even lumping in younger men — they tend to procrastinate a lot more than women. They also tend to be more impulsive, especially in purchasing gifts. And they respond more powerfully to rankings: things like “the best-selling,” “the number 1,” “the ultimate.”

Anyway, if you go to a mall a day or 2 before Christmas, it’s likely to be all men. I’m not stereotyping men when I say this. They’re the first to admit it: “I hate shopping, I’m not going until I have to.”


  1. Yarrow K. Is retail therapy for real? 5 ways shopping is actually good for you. Time. April 16, 2013. http://business.time.com/2013/04/16/is-retail-therapy-for-real-5-ways-shopping-is-actually-good-for-you/ Accessed November 18, 2013.
  2. Hartston H. The case for compulsive shopping as an addiction. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2012;44:64-67. Abstract

Medscape Psychiatry © 2013  WebMD, LLC

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