What Holiday Shopping Does to Your Brain

November 2nd 2015

Kristin Marguerite Doidge

The crazed holiday shopping season is the time of year when I, for one, start to feel uneasy about the deals and bargains that are headed for my inbox and for my empty but oh-so-vulnerable wallet. Will I be strong enough to resist them? The struggle is real when it comes to the compulsion to shop, especially when you’re feeling lonely or isolated, as many people do this time of year. A recent study from the University of Michigan shows that the region of the brain associated with dopamine production—the “feel good” hormone—is activated while shopping for deals, which is why it often feels good (at least at the time) to buy seven sweaters for $90.

Your brain on shopping.

Obviously, marketers, psychologists, and savvy consumers know that retail therapy can be both thrilling and difficult to resist; our brains are on sensory overload with mixed messages and conflicted feelings from the moment we walk into a store or visit our favorite shopping site. Think colors, sounds, and scents. They’re all designed to help you not stay within budget.

"Holiday shopping is probably experienced more intensely due to the numerous and deep sales that go on at the same time,” said Dr. Lars Perner, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and an expert in the psychology of shopping. "There are opportunities to ‘score’ a lot of bargains over a short period of time."

And even if you arrived at a store to responsibly just buy the gift you need, you can still be drawn in by the dreaded “impulse” buy, even if you think you’re clever.

Research from Stanford University has shown that a shopper who came in for an item they actually needed is more likely to buy unrelated items and fall victim to what Uzma Khan calls “shopping momentum” when the shopper completed the errand, such as buying a gift or grocery shopping. That means the shopper seems to want to reward his or herself by adding additional items to her cart, whether it’s in real life or online.

The effects of an obsession with materialism—especially as someone saddled with student loan debt or who is simply trying to stay within budget without a second job—can be crippling on a personal and societal level. Over the past two decades, Americans have successfully found ways to work longer hours and take on more debt to keep up with the proverbial Jones’ new things, and yet, you guessed it, we’re not any happier or healthier.

How to fight back.

So how do you fight back against compulsive consumerism—especially when you’re being hit left and right with $540 billion worth of marketing messages designed specifically to draw you in? University of Florida psychologist Roy Baumeister, says the self-control needed to survive is developed “like a muscle,” the Stanford Alumni Magazine reports. The idea is that the best way to make good decisions is to practice good self-control, challenge it, and try it again, knowing that sometimes you might fall short if you’re tired, just like you would with any new workout regimen.

For even more inspiration, the Center for a New American Dream has shared several resources for a new way to approach the holiday season altogether.

“We try to get people engaged in being ‘citizens’ and not thinking of themselves as just ‘consumers,’” Wendy Philleo, executive director of the Center, told ATTN:. “What gives us the most satisfaction is spending time with people. If you feel like you want to shop, stop and take a look at why...the high [from shopping] is very short-lived.”

In a somewhat radical departure from "Black Friday" and the normal shopping frenzy that begins at the start of November, the Center for a New American Dream’s SoKind: the Alternative Gift Registry offers people a way to celebrate special occasions in a more mindful, sustainable and personal way with gifts of time, experience, skill-sharing, home-made and secondhand gifts rather than more stuff from big box stores. (Take that, FOMO.)

“This is good for all of us,” Philleo added, noting that this kind of approach is a “win-win” for communities and individuals alike. “It’s the Millennials driving this trend in valuing experience over goods in the sharing economy. It makes me hopeful.”

I’m hopeful, too. I might even hit ‘delete’ next time a sale email comes in.