Brain Impulse Buying

If you’re reading this thinking that you aren’t susceptible to impulse buying, think again. In truth, we aren’t always rational thinkers when we buy things (online or in store). The fact of the matter is that your unconscious mind is often driving your behaviour as a consumer. It is under the influence of our basic evolutionary drives and the clever tactics of retailers. It is so easy to feel compelled to buy something that you may regret or justify later with some retro-fitted reasoning.

So what’s going on inside your head and what can you do to make fewer purchases that will turn out to be wasteful? Impulse buying can be defined as, a stimulus-controlled, spontaneous buying behaviour that is accompanied by strong positive emotions and low cognitive control. Bit of a mouthful, so to quote Lindsay Lohan, My mum says, ‘Go with your first instinct,’ but this can lead to impulse buying!

Research shows that a huge amount of our decision making is actually based on subtle subconscious factors. These tend to be accentuated when we are not focussing or distracted (sometimes deliberately). Indeed it appears that a wandering mind can not only lead to accidents and lost productivity but to powerful impulse buying. Yet the brain is the most complex organ in the Universe. It produces our every thought, action, memory, feeling and experience of the world. New research is indicating that focus is a crucial mindful choice and ideas of control (in retail) may be an illusion. Indeed real-time brain monitoring can be used to help people regain focus and might lead consumers to be more selective buyers as a result.

In the animal kingdom, humans are known for our big brains. This jelly-like mass of tissue, weighing in at around 1.4 kilograms, contains a staggering one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons. The pattern and strength of the neural connections is constantly changing and no two brains are alike. Yet it’s structure determines how memories are stored, habits learned and personalities shaped, by reinforcing certain patterns of brain activity, and losing others. Researchers have uncovered genetic variations that help determine the size of key brain regions. These variants may represent the genetic essence of humanity and choice. Maybe.

This supposed free choice is deeply influence by some simple external factors. Most shopping is far too dull and time consuming to carry out with conscious attention. Imagine if every item you bought was cross-referenced with every other product available in the market; you would need to look at price, product composition, reviews and maybe even the quality of customer service supporting it. Even if you could find all the information in comparable formats it would take hours to buy one item. So instead we use heuristics [unconsciously held rules and short cuts] that help us make quick decisions that we’ve learned generally work out well.

However, these shortcuts when combined with loss of concentration and focus may lead to the idea of how we make poor decisions to buy. Neuroscientists at Princeton University monitored the brain activity of students who were asked to perform a repetitive task that required close attention. The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, show that people can learn to stop their minds from wandering if they are made aware it is happening. This means if we (as consumers) can use real time brain activity as a basis of feedback (the app must be round the corner) we might be able to train our brains to be more sensitive to when their attention is starting to wane and gain real focus.

Another article in ‘Science Daily’ looks at the research on how what’s going on inside our head affects our senses. Children from more challenging economic communities think coins are larger than they are, and hungry people think pictures of food are brighter. (Science Daily, 3 March 2012). They found that when words were flashed very fast on a screen (too fast to read, but slow enough to imprint on the brain), hungry people saw the food related words as brighter and were better at identifying the food-related words when shown on a list after they were flashed. This research indicates is that our perceptions increase toward items that our body wants or needs. Our illusion of control and that idea we have a choice in buying is being further challenged.These exciting pieces of research indicate that we can all become neurosales savvy (whether to sell or to buy sensibly). The secret is by asking 2 questions:

  • How do we get more focus?
  • What we are really lacking, or hungry for, in our day to day lives?

It all start by telling a good story. By turning percentages and figures into a good tale capture and keeps your customers’ attention. Statistics are great but you need people to pay attention to your numbers to help drive sales. Our brains are wired to process stories in a more engaged way. Brain scan work shows that when people read a story with a lot of action elements, their brains actually mimic the motions.

Another area some retailers have learned to focus on is that we’re very susceptible to the loss aversion switch. Loss aversion, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, describes our innate concern to avoid feeling bad in the future. Normally this would affect our purchase decisions by causing us to prevaricate over a purchase: “Might I feel bad if I buy this and don’t have the money for something else?” But add in a discount that we’re told or we assume won’t last forever and our unconscious focus switches to the fear we’ll miss out on the deal. Retailers take advantage of this by packaging up products as bulk buys, or they include ‘free’ extras. We get the impression that it must be good value, and we go with this feeling rather than researching any further.

Our heuristic susceptibility to value and apparent discounts isn’t just down to the loss aversion switch; many of us have an innate desire to save. Retailers and manufacturers play on this by telling us how much money we could save by buying and using their product. Perhaps thousands of years ago, knowing that it was important to store up food and wood for the winter would be the difference between life and death. These days most of us no longer need to worry about our day-to-day survival, but the evolutionary drive remains. In short, we find it hard to resist the idea that we’ll be saving money or time.

Though we have already discovered an enormous amount about the brain, huge and crucial mysteries remain. One of the most important is how does the brain produces our conscious experiences? The vast majority of the brain’s activity is subconscious. But our conscious thoughts, sensations and perceptions, what define us as humans, cannot yet be explained in terms of brain activities.

Objectivity is an elusive virtue in buying.

Be Amazing Every Day.