Why Humans Are So Bad At Shopping – And What You Can Do About It

November 20, 2014

Research shows that we often make irrational choices, and many times these “bad” choices are made at the mall or while shopping online. Knowing the psychological science behind your shopping habits can help you be more aware and make better decisions in the stores – good information to know as we head into the busy back-to-school shopping season.

There is a reason why shopping is known as retail therapy: when we shop we improve our moods – 64% of women and 40% of men have an improved mood while shopping. Recent studies utilizing brain scans have found that human beings have 23 minutes to evaluate a product logically before we evaluate a product emotionally; after 40 minutes our emotional centers are fully engaged in making the purchase decision.

Emotions are two to three times more powerful than logic in making a purchase decision,  no matter how big or important the decision is. And our brains trick themselves into thinking that we made the decision on a rational basis no matter how long we took to make the decision, or whether the areas of the brain associated with rational decisions are active or not. This positive feeling following a purchase is called “hedonic elevation.”

Fortunately this positive feeling that humans experience can be triggered without actually buying anything. It can be triggered just by window shopping or browsing. This is part of the reason that people are drawn to the Internet. When something unexpected or something positive pops up on the Internet, like someone commenting on your Facebook status, the same synaptic patterns are activated that are activated by shopping, including Dopaminergic pathways and pathways involving oxytocin.

With only 23 minutes to make a logical decision, we need to evaluate quickly while shopping. Luckily, modern technology is beginning to make decision-making easier and faster. There are more and more Internet sites, like Consumer Reports, that collate information from multiple sources and make comparisons easier. This allows us to focus the limited amount of time that we have to make decisions based on logic. 

Talking to a therapist can also help curb emotional shopping behavior by looking at the underlying reasons why you may be seeking that positive “retail therapy” feeling. Learning techniques to handle your emotions will empower you to make logical decisions while shopping online or at the mall.

If you’re interested in talking to me or any of our staff therapists, visit our Make an Appointment page today! Council for Relationships offers high quality counseling services to everyone, regardless of ability to pay.