Why We Shop: The Neuropsychology of Consumption

Black Friday is such a strange name. It has been called that because the spike in sales puts retailers “in the black.”

And now, it starts on Thursday. For me, Thanksgiving is a day for family, neighbors, and friends. Our pets are happy because we get a bonus day and they may even get table treas! As a doctor, well, actually, as a human, I say stay in and socialize on Thanksgiving evening, rather than going off to a mall! One of the reasons the Mediterranean diet is probably so effective at preventing cardiovascular disease is because of its focus on sit-down meals with extended family.

But you may ask, what about the effects of “retail therapy”? They are real. Going shopping can be a break from your routine, filled with beautiful storefronts and music. It can make you feel really good to find just the right gift for someone. Getting shopping done early can help you feel more prepared for the impending holidays. Even catalog shopping can be a mini vacation in the mind.

Shopping can also be energizing. Ever feel that small adrenaline rush from getting that great bargain? The infectious energy of the crowds on Black Friday can also not be denied. However, there is a large emotional component to shopping. You can be really wired and make impulse purchases – or feel obligated to buy something if you’ve waited on line for hours. In a way, it’s very similar to how food can affect us.

Today’s article is an interview with consumer psychologist Dr. Yarrow. Here is an excerpt of that interview in which he speaks on the addictive nature of shopping:

Q – Is there an addictive component to shopping in some people?

A – Dr. Yarrow: I do think that there are a lot of people who rely on the dopamine rush that comes with finding a bargain or something special as a way to add a little bit of oomph to their life. I think that’s probably the most problematic aspect of shopping: that people become almost, I think, addicted to the bargain hunt.
Avoid being a victim of the adrenaline rush!

Try these hints that work for impulse shopping as well as when you are tempted to eat in an unhealthy way during the holidays:

1) Be mindful and enjoy where you are and what you are doing. Before you buy or eat, take in the colors, the sounds, the music, the vibes for 15 or 20 minutes.

2) Do some relaxation breathing. It really works!

The Calming Breath: This is good for emotional eaters who turn to food to pacify strong feelings. Use this technique when you feel short of breath, anxious, or out of control:

1) Start with relaxing your neck and shoulders muscles.

2.) Breath in slowly through your nose, and as you inhale count to three.

3) Pretend that you’re going to whistle

4) Breathe out through pursed lips, letting the air out naturally. You don’t have to change your breathing or force the air out of your lungs.

5) Bring to mind the image of blowing bubbles.

6) Repeat. Keep doing pursed-lip breathing until you feel calmer.


The Relaxing Breath: This is good for those emotional eaters who seek food when they are trying to relax and unwind.

1) Sit or stand, whichever is more comfortable for you.

2) Close your eyes if you want to.

3) Bend your arms at the elbows. Pull your elbows toward each other behind your back. Stretch your elbows back behind you as far as they will go.

4) Hold for a moment, then let your arms drop by your side.

5) Inhale deeply

6) Hold your breath as you count to three.

7) Exhale slowly.

8) Let all the air out.

9) Repeat steps 3-6 as many times as it takes to feel relaxed.

Most importantly: remember to do acts of kindness – these acts will warm you and make you feel good. Hold the door for someone. Give to a charity. Do an errand for an older neighbor. Bring someone’s paper or trash can in.

However, you spend your time, enjoy this holiday season!

Dr. Nolfo