Binge shopping – a no brainer?

Exploring the science behind the 'treat yourself' mentality.

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two hands holding a load of shopping bags
We all recognise the evidence of a shopping trip gone wild

We’ve all been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, dress, jeans and shoes that we didn’t really need. And now we’re broke and still have nothing to wear.

It might feel like a never-ending cycle that leaves you with a limp bank card and an overflowing closet, but there is some science to explain what makes us buy things all the time (and how sometimes, a little indulgence can be a good thing!).

During a shopping experience, the human brain releases dopamine, which causes us to feel pleasure, chemically programming our brain to respond positively to sales and advertisements. As with receiving rewards, we feel an instant sense of gratification at being able to obtain the item we want.

Additionally, split second decisions don’t function around a careful evaluation of possible outcomes. Instead, excitement causes a spike in brainwaves and results in emotional engagement with the product. Studies have shown that even just anticipating the experience can cause shoppers to instantly feel better.

So, you can almost justify any irresponsible shopping spree as the result of brain chemicals. But what are the consequences if we let our brains (and our bank cards) run wild?

Of course, there’s the obvious, such as financial constraints and a depressing bank statement. But a dependence on excessive shopping can actually become compulsive buying disorder. The fear of missing out on a purchase (otherwise known as ‘loss aversion theory’) causes one to irrationally overvalue the losses of not buying something – to the extent that this is valued at double as much as they’d gain by buying it. Such behaviour is also closely linked to hoarding, as many sufferers will keep every single purchase as a reminder of their ‘victory’ through buying it.

Of course, this is the worst-case scenario and a couple of shopping trips every now and then won’t hurt. Technically, it could even be beneficial for your mental health as it releases dopamine, which simulates feelings of happiness. However, uncontrolled spending can lead to larger money problems. This is especially prevalent around the Boxing Day and New Year sales, promising us savings that could make us happier than we thought possible. When shopping, it may be beneficial to take a moment to consider what you’re buying and whether you can justify it; one shopping trip seems affordable, but a prolonged habit of binge shopping is less so. As cool as the new outfit you have may be, you probably don’t need as much as your brain thinks you do.

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