Psychology of Impulse Shopping

Impulse shopping is something that many of us laugh off as a guilty pleasure or a character flaw that’s charming and mischievous. However the reality is that impulse shopping can actually be quite a damaging behavior that ends up having untold negative consequences on our lives.

Impulse shopping can result in buying lots of things you don’t need or want and this in turn can mean you spend lots of money that you can’t afford. This in turn can result in your placing a strain on your relationship, getting into debt and even making your house a mess as you have too many things and nowhere to store them.

Here we will look at where impulse shopping comes from and how you can go about combating it.

Where Does Impulse Shopping Come From

Impulse shopping can be an addiction like any other addictive behavior and it is just as damaging. When you make a purchase as an impulse shopper this will result in a rush of dopamine that will be the same kind of hormonal rush that you get from eating a pudding that you really like, from falling in love, or from having sex. Over time your brain becomes used to the release of dopamine and you then need to get bigger and more regular ‘hits’ in order to achieve the same high. This also means that we are most likely to make purchases when we are feeling low (because dopamine is a happiness hormone) making these emotional and not logical decisions.

There are other underlying mechanisms beneath impulse buying. We are designed in order to accumulate things for various reasons. Gathering resources had an evolutionary advantage when we were evolving and would help us to attract partners and to better survive times when supplies were low. Thus we are genetically ‘programmed’ to want to collect and gather. At the same time we have a social impulse to try and ‘compete’ with others in terms of how much we have. This then leads us to try and amass more than others and more valuable items than others as status symbols. We even buy things as a way to express ourselves, and many people think of their rooms or houses as almost ‘manifestos’ or their Facebook profile pages – they want to contain everything in there that they have ever liked or enjoyed as a way of demonstrating their personality through those belongings.

What makes it hardest though of course is the fact that so much marketing and sales is designed in order to make us impulse buy. Many businesses revolve around impulse purchases and generally the purchases that you don’t need and this then means that they use every psychological technique to try and steer us to make that decision and to buy things when we know we can’t afford to or when we know we don’t need to. You’d be surprised at how well these strategies work – here are just a few of those methods…


Here shop keepers and website owners will use the power of contrast to make things seem better value. For instance they might list a $200 suit right next to a $40 one. Because the $200 is so expensive, this then makes you think that you aren’t really spending anything at all when you buy the cheaper $40 option. ‘What’s the harm in $40 when I could be spending $200’? It makes you feel as though you are making a sensible and logical decision when in fact you shouldn’t be spending anything at all and so this was still an extravagance.


POS stands for ‘Point of Sale’ and it basically refers to anything that is advertized at the point of sale (such as a discounted chocolate bar at the checkout in WH Smiths). This means that it is advertized at the point where you are already committed to spending money and time on buying something. In other words then adding on a cheap extra $5 is so convenient, and you have already gotten over the significantly more difficult psychological hurdle of deciding to spend money at all, and this then means that you do make a purchase when you otherwise wouldn’t.


Advertizing uses a strategy called ‘association’ and that means creating positive emotions connected to the product. The best example of this is beer adverts – which show someone cool and attractive drinking beer in the sun while talking to good looking women. This then makes men think of sun, sea and sex when they see that brand of beer and this emotional hook can be enough to motivate them to buy it.

Social Pressure

Sales men and women are taught to tell people that the person down the road has whatever product it is they’re trying to see you. For instance if they’re selling Sky they will say ‘The man with the white dog down your road, do you know him? He has Sky and he really likes it’. This then brings out that evolutionary desire to amass more status than others in our circle and this in turn results in us trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ by making a purchase.


Shops are organized in a way that is very cleverly designed to make you buy things. Go into a supermarket and you will likely feel frustrated by how hard it is to find things. The reason that this happens is that the store manager will have purposefully mixed things around this way – so that you can’t find what you’re looking for right away and are forced to look around more things. This in turn then means that you are more likely to walk past other things you might want to buy and thus make an impulse purchase.

Time Limits

Time limits are things like special orders, or limited stock. These things work well because they motivate you to buy right away and thus make an emotional and impulsive decision rather than a logical and weighted one. Shop keepers and website owners know that if you don’t buy right away then you aren’t likely to buy at all – and thus the deal makes you think that you should buy now rather than wait until later.


There’s another reason for limited stock, and that that it lends the item more status. Fewer people own it and thus this means that you can show off more personality with your item and increase your status in the eyes of others.

Combating Impulsive Shopping

So that’s where impulsive shopping comes from, the question is what do you do about it? Here are some suggestions that can help you to overcome impulsive shopping.

Buy Later

If you are out in town or buying online then make the simple decision to buy anything you think you want the next day. Often you work yourself into a frenzy and think you ‘must have’ something that really you don’t need. So take the time out to first ‘sleep on it’ and you will know if you really want it or not.

Write Things Down

If the urge is too strong and you feel you must buy right away then often this comes from an illogical feeling that you need to make a statement by buying it, or that you might otherwise even ‘forget’ to buy it. If this is the case then have a ‘wish list’ in your kitchen or somewhere else and write the things you want down on here. This way you have externalized it and you will feel a lot less conflicted about the whole matter. This also acts as a perfect shopping list.

Make Rules

There are various rules you can use to limit your spending. For instance you can make yourself a budget with a spending limit each week and only buy things that fit into your budget. Alternatively you could treat yourself to one thing each month. Or another option is to say you can only buy something new if you have sold something old. This way you will not be spending as much and you won’t be amassing junk rather just improving the overall quality of what you do have. Try to view these rules as a challenge and as a test of your psychological mettle.

Use a Separate Account

Impulse behavior is based on ease and on availability, thus you need to make it harder for you to buy things. One way to do this is to make separate accounts for things. Have one account that is your ‘treats’ account and only spend money that you have in that account. Set up a standing order with your budget so that the amount you allow yourself to spend gets transferred into that account and then don’t spend anything above that number. Now only set up that account on sites like Amazon so that once you’re out of money you can’t use your credit card without going to the effort of adding a new payment method. Likewise make sure that you only take out that card when you’re going clothes/DVD shopping.

End Collections

Collections of things are responsible for a lot of impulse shopping. For instance if you have a DVD collection then you might find you keep adding new ones so that you can impress visitors with the impressive size of your selection. However what you need to do is to change this way of thinking and recognize that if you have a lot of things then you are only diluting the quality. People tend to be more impressed by a selection of several really good DVDs that say a lot about who you really are rather than thousands of rubbish ones.

Go Digital

There are now many ways you can buy a lot more cheaply without having to add to your clutter. For instance instead of buying a DVD – why not download a film on iTunes or on your Xbox? Alternatively you could even try getting the film another way by using torrents (though there are legal issues here). Once you realize that you don’t need to actually hold things to enjoy them you can cut your purchases significantly.

Clear Out

One of the best things you can do right now is to have a huge clear out with one simple rule – anything that doesn’t have sentimental value that you have used for over a year should be thrown out or sold. The reality is that if you haven’t used something in over a year then you don’t really need it. If you sell and throw out these things then, that will help you to massively ‘de-clutter’ your household and to start to understand the value of a more minimalist design. Once you’ve realized how many things you don’t really need or want then you can stop adding to your collection, and furthermore, once you’ve got a nicely designed minimalist house that’s easy to keep clean and tidy, then you won’t want to ‘go back’ to having a house that’s a mess of clutter.

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