The psychology of impulsive shopping

Posted on October 25, 2016

Although most people think of products in terms of their functional characteristics - the instrumental value or utility of products - products are mostly chosen on their symbolic value, i.e. the psychological meaning they have for consumers. This is particularly true in the case of impulsive buying. This is why John K Galbraith cynically pointed out that "a person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions."

As consumer psychologists noted, impulsive purchases occur when consumers perceive that the product or brand they are buying matches their own attitudes and self-views, helping them express and cement their own sense of identity. For example, if you think that you are cool and that it is important to be cool, you will probably be happy to pay a little extra to buy an Apple product (so long as you see Apple as cool). Thus products, and especially brands, play the role of symbolic trophies that consumers use to consolidate their self-concept and communicate it to others. When brands are strong, they are anthropomorphic: they have clearly defined, human-like, personality characteristics, which consumers use as signals to showcase their own personality to others.

The more individualistic a culture, the more compulsively people will shop. We are also more likely to shop impulsively when we are stressed or when we perceive a lack of control over situations, which is why compulsive shopping increases after extreme environmental events, such as natural disasters. Likewise people who are high on power-distance - individuals who feel they are naturally superior or more important than others - tend to exercise more self-control and are less vulnerable to impulsive buying. Interestingly, we are more likely to shop compulsively when we are with friends, but less likely when we are with relatives.

Oscar Wilde famously noted that he could resist everything except temptation. In reality, people differ substantially in their ability to display self-control and these differences explain individual variability in impulsive shopping. Likewise people who are more prone to buy things impulsively tend to be higher on sensation seeking, a trait that concerns high boredom susceptibility and an appetite for novel and unusual experiences.

It should also be noted that since narcissism levels have been rising over the past decades and narcissistic people spend more effort and money cultivating their look and accumulating material possessions, it is unsurprising that impulsive consumption is on the rise. Compulsive shopping has also been boosted by increased internet addiction, with some scholars suggesting that it is one of the factors fueling online and mobile retail habits.

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Category(s):Compulsive Spending / Shopping

Source material from The Guardian

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