Hey Big Spender! Why our brains make us spend too much during the holidays

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Whether or not we stay within our holiday shopping budget may not depend as much on willpower as it does on the circuitry of our own brains. Learn why your brain “lights up” when shopping—and how you can avoid impulse spending this season.

Three Simple Tips to Avoid Impulse Spending and Stay within Your Holiday Budget

The holidays are here, which for most of us means spending time shopping in malls or online looking for gifts for loved ones (and even for ourselves!). It also means trying to keep from spending too much money.

Apparently whether we stay within our holiday shopping budget may not depend as much on willpower as it does on the circuitry of our own brains.

Brian Knutson of Standford University and colleagues mapped the brains of shoppers using a MRI. They discovered that, as people contemplated whether or not to make a purchase, one of two segments of their brains would “light up.” If the nucleus accumbens–part of the reward and pleasure center of the brain–lit up, the subject would invariably make the purchase. If the insula–the part of the brain that registers pain (such as the pain of something costing more than its perceived value)–lit up, the subject would invaribly say “Thanks, but no thanks.”

By watching which part of the brain became active, researchers could accurately predict whether or not the shopper would make the purchase.

The reason shopping feels so good may be related to the brain chemical dopamine. This “feel good” chemical is released anytime we are exposed to the exciting mix of new places, challenges, sights and sounds–all of which are plentiful at the mall.

Looking to the brain for reasons people make the decisions they do is a new science. Baba Shiv, professor of marketing and an expert in the field of “decision neuroscience” says that, “Ten years ago if you said there is going to be fMRI in marketing research, I would have said it will never happen.” He explains that now business researchers and neuroscientists are working together, “moving toward systems of brain analysis, figuring out what gives us the juice to make decisions.”

Knudsen agrees, adding, “We’re moving from the outside to the inside of the mind.”

As you go about your holiday shopping, understanding how your brain perceives and even influences the experience may help you make better decisions.

If you’re prone to impulse purchases and are worried about staying in your budget, try these three things:

For starters, be extra careful while traveling–the novelty of shopping in a new city can make you particularly vulnerable to the heady pleasure of bagging a bargain.

Also, when contemplating a purchase you suspect you’ll regret, neutralize the thrill of the moment and activate your insula by thinking of three unpleasant ramifications that might be related to the purchase you’re trying to resist.

Finally, consider leaving the store and coming back the next day to let the dopamine settle before making your final decision.

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