Why shopping feels so good

Laura Mappas
Friday, June 27, 2008
Image: Getty

Finally, shopaholics can blame science for spur-of-the-moment spending sprees. According to a new UK study, the brain is to blame…

Got shopping on the brain?
Contrary to popular belief, shopping is not a random, thoughtless act, nor is it emotional — instead the urge to spend is brought on by a primitive area of the brain that makes us seek new experiences. Not only does this help explain why people go on shopping sprees, but it also explains why consumers routinely fall for "new" products.

Blame it on science
British researchers, using brain scans to measure blood flow, found that a part of the brain known as the ventral straitum was more active when people selected unusual objects. This area releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, which process rewards in the brain.

The appeal of the unknown
It is this age-old reward mechanism of the brain that has scientists believing humans have been giving in to the desire to sample the unknown for generations — so much so, scientists even believe it provides us with an evolutionary advantage.

"Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioural tendency in humans and animals. It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run," says Bianca Wittman from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at the University College, London.

The risks
Before you start charging up your credit card, it's important to know that there are also risks involved in adventurous spending. In today's competitive world, big spenders can be easily swayed by big brands and mass marketing hype.

On top of the fact that shoppers may be tricked into buying goods they don't really need by clever advertising campaigns and masterful branding, some may also fall victim to common vices, like gambling, in the search of adventure.

"In humans, increased novelty-seeking may play a role in gambling and drug addiction," says Nathaniel Daw from New York University, "both of which are mediated by malfunctions in dopamine release."

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