Buy with Your Brain, Not with Your Gut

woman out shopping in a clothing store while wearing a facial covering

As savvy as most of us think we are when it comes to shopping, in truth, most of our major purchasing decisions are based on emotional responses. Our “gut” decides what we want and then our brain starts working on the reasons why that purchase is a good idea. If you’ve ever wondered “How did I talk myself into buying that?” you have your emotions to blame.

Retailers are banking on your emotions doing all the major decision-making. That’s why most advertising content glosses over the specifics of a product in favor of connecting that product to certain emotional cues. As a consumer, your emotions are constantly being manipulated by anyone who wants to sell you something.

Fortunately, by understanding the psychology that’s being used to nudge you in the wallet, you can recognize and overcome these tactics. 

False scarcity

“Hurry! Only 3 left in stock!”

Have you ever noticed that on websites like Amazon or Etsy, each product page will often include a counter showing you how many units of that item are left in stock? That counter is usually bold or in a different color in order to draw your attention. Why do they include this? Because the notion that an item might run out and you might not be able to purchase it induces people to make purchases they otherwise might not have. "They’re about to run out! I have to buy it now!"

While you may not be sure that you even want the item in question, the idea of missing out is scary - and highly motivating. 

Do yourself a major favor and ignore that little rising panic. Chances are good that even if they do run out, there will be more eventually. And really, what does it matter if you got one of the last ones if you realize afterwards that you didn’t even want it in the first place?

Numbers can lie

Numbers are a bad best friend. We trust numbers. We think that numbers have to be telling us the truth. They’re facts, after all. But numbers can lie. Retailers abuse our misguided faith in numbers all the time.

As “neuromarketing” expert Roger Dooley notes, we give ourselves too much credit as human calculators. If stickers reading “30 percent more, free!” or “60 percent off list price!” fill you with strange urgency and excitement, slow down. Try to understand what these numbers are really saying. After all is said and done, what are you actually paying? And is that “saving” a good deal for you?

Additionally, prices are often adjusted to create a false sense of separation between two similar items. Consumers have shown that they can have a hard time choosing between two items of equal quality and equal cost, often leading them to choose neither. To combat this, retailers will change the price of one of the items. People who value saving money will then pick the cheaper of the two options. People who believe that higher prices invariably mean higher quality will pick the more expensive option. 

Try not to let number manipulate your feelings. Focus on features, reviews, and what you can actually afford.

Personal obligation

If you haven't been in a while, you may be surprised at just how much is happening at the modern, major car dealership. There’s free food and drinks. They have special activities for the kids. Many times you win a prize for just walking through the door. It’s like a carnival in a parking lot that’s full of really shiny cars.

It seems like a nice thing to do, but there’s a specific, psychological reason car dealerships go to all this trouble – they want you to feel obligated to reciprocate. When people are nice to us – when they go out of their way to make us feel comfortable – we usually feel obligated to do the same for them. Businesses often try to leverage that feeling of obligation. They give us free things because it makes us more likely to buy what they’re selling.

Remind yourself that you are a customer, not a friend. A free bottle of water and a chocolate chip cookie do not obligate you to buy an SUV.

Sense of belonging

A few years back, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that rude sales clerks at high-end shops actually help drive sales of those brands. Essentially the study found that consumers who felt positively about certain luxury brands actually felt an increased desire to own those products after being treated rudely by a sales associate representing that brand.

What it basically boils down to is class division. If the sales clerk (who represents the brand) acts as though the consumer isn’t worthy of that brand, the consumer then wants to be a part of that brand even more, in order to belong to a “class” they admire.

That feeling isn’t limited to luxury items. Consumers very often subconsciously define themselves by their purchases, leading many to buy things they can’t afford and ultimately fall into debt. Avoiding that pitfall requires you to separate who you are from what you buy. You are not the sum of your purchases. Remember that the next time you’re out shopping – it might just save you some money.

And if you've made a few shopping mistakes already and need help digging out of debt, MMI is here to help! We offer budget-friendly repayment plans that can accelerate your debt repayment (and save you money in the process. Learn more today!

Article updated December 2020

Tagged in Psychology and money, Smart shopping, Holidays

Jesse Campbell photo.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, with over ten years of experience creating valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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