Why Our Brain Prefers Online Shopping
Whether we love it or hate it, we all have to shop from time to time. Prior to the availability of online shopping, how people felt towards shopping was dependent on a number of external factors that had little to do with the actual shopping experience. For example, someone adverse to crowds wouldn’t be as motivated to spend a lot of time shopping as someone who craves a lot of stimuli and excitement. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t responding to the same neurological impulses. However, as more and more companies offer online options, shopping has become more convenient and readily available than ever before––and our brain actually prefers it.
Shopping requires us to make a lot of decisions. From the second we decide we want to start looking at items, our nucleus accumbens is activated. The nucleus accumbens is closely linked to the reward system in our brain. When we first see an item, this area lights up and continues to work while we decide if we want to purchase it. However, once a price is introduced or noticed, our brain activity moves to our mesial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with high-level cognitive problem-solving and decision-making. If we decide against the purchase, our insula, the area associated with negative emotions and pain shows increased activity, but if we decide to purchase the item, the reward system is activated.
This process is powerful and online shopping makes it easier for this system to work even harder. In a store, we have to rely on memory or our own preconceived notions on what an item should be priced. But online we can price check and shop around, not only extending the shopping experience but ensuring that we likely find the deal we’re looking for. This increases the activity in our reward center and can decrease the activity in our insula, which can actually work to increase how much we spend and how frequently we spend as well.
We often associate the idea of a reward with the item we purchase. But it turns out, the reward system in our brain actually activates in anticipation of getting the item. While purchasing the item will transition our brain from our executive decision-making, our brain starts releasing dopamine––a powerful feel-good neurochemical––the moment we begin to anticipate the reward.
Anticipation is short-lived when we’re in stores. We feel the anticipation when we decide to shop and while we’re shopping, but that ends with the physical purchase. However, with online shopping, the anticipation is extended while we wait for the package to arrive. This makes shopping online far more powerful in the neurochemical sense because we experience the dopamine release the entire time we wait. Research shows that people who shop online are up to 82% more excited to receive their package when ordered online than shopping in person.
Our brain loves the idea of a good deal, and we never want to feel as though we are missing out on one. This compelling feeling is, in fact, leftover from our hunter-gather days. It is the idea that we must get more meat even if we have enough because we never know when we will have this chance again. This same impulse happens with shopping. Limited-time sales or low inventory can trigger the feeling that we have to get this item now or miss out. And our brain has an instinctual reaction to avoid that.
Online companies can take advantage of this impulse in more direct ways than physical stores. While a physical store can have time limits and even limit the inventory on display, online retailers can send us direct messages in apps and via emails alerting us to these limited offers and deals. When we’re online companies can have countdowns for sales ticking in the corner or pop-ups warning us that certain items are almost sold out. And because these ads, emails, or notifications can come in even when we aren’t shopping, they can trigger this impulse when we least expect it and therefore are more likely to give in.
Considering how many parts of the brain are activated while we shop, it’s no wonder it’s called “retail therapy”. Powerful neurochemicals are released throughout our entire shopping experience, making us feel good and want to spend more. However, with online shopping increasing our impulsivity and extending the reward cycle, it’s important to be even more aware of how our brain is operating. It’s impossible to avoid shopping altogether, but knowing how to create limits and what to watch out for, we can still enjoy the experience without going overboard or falling into unhealthy behavior.