Sold?

Understanding consumer behavior—before you buy.

What Motivates Impulse Buying?

Personality, pleasure, and product connections can all lead to impulse buys.

Impulse buying is a common behavior today.  Our culture of consumption enables us to succumb to temptation and purchase something without considering the consequences of the buy. Is that a bad thing? In my view, yes, it can be. Impulse buying is related to anxiety and unhappiness, and controlling it could help improve your psychological well-being. To control something though, it’s important to first understand it. To understand impulse buying from a psychological perspective, we should ask the question “What motivates us to impulsively buy products?” There are in fact a number of answers to this question, and knowing them will help you make smarter, more rational decisions the next time you’re shopping or the next time you just catch yourself wanting to buy something.

Some people possess a personality trait called an impulse buying tendency, which as you may have guessed means they have a habit of making impulsive purchases. That might sound innocent, but there are a number of behaviors that go along with this trait that reflect its detrimental influence. First, impulse buyers are more social, status-conscious, and image-concerned. The impulse buyer may therefore buy as a way to look good in the eyes of others.  Second, impulse buyers tend to experience more anxiety and difficulty controlling their emotions, which may make it harder to resist emotional urges to impulsively spend money.  Third, impulse buyers tend to experience less happiness, and so may buy as a way to improve their mood. Last, impulse buyers are less likely to consider the consequences of their spending; they just want to have it.

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People who like to shop for fun are more likely to buy on impulse. We all want to experience pleasure, and it can be a lot of fun to go shopping and imagine owning the products we see that we like. Once we start experiencing pleasure as a result of this sense of vicarious ownership, we’re more likely to buy those products so that we can continue to experience that pleasure.

The concept of vicarious ownership is related to another impulse buying motivator, which is a connection between a consumer and a product. When we’re connected to a product it literally changes the way our minds perceive it. Our minds essentially start acting like we already own the product, which makes it harder to go without buying it. This begs the question “How are connections with products formed?” A physical connection with a product is created when we’re close to it, and when we’re able to touch it. A temporal connection with a product is created when we’re able to purchase it immediately. Finally, a social connection with a product is created when we see someone using it and compare ourselves to that person.

How do all these factors go together to interact on us as consumers? Well, consider the following hypothetical example: The impulse buyer may feel unhappy, and may think that being seen with an expensive new purchase will bring respect and happiness. This perceived road to happiness motivates the impulse buyer to go shopping. Once in the retail environment a product catches the impulse buyer’s eye. S/he looks at it, probably picks it up and inspects it, and maybe thinks of a friend who owns it. The impulse buyer likes the product, and experiences pleasure at the thought of being able to purchase it immediately and go home with it. The impulse buyer can’t resist the urge to buy the product and does so, without considering whether it’s too expensive and/or frivolous. This inevitably leads to buyer’s remorse, paradoxically bringing unhappiness, the very feeling the impulse buyer wanted to stop experiencing.

Knowing what motivates impulse buying and whether these motivators are affecting you can help you spend less money on impulse. There is one caveat I’d like to mention, which is that everyone behaves impulsively now and then, and a certain (modest) level of impulse buying can be harmless. However, an excessive level of impulse buying can lead to debt and unhappiness, so it’s in your best interest to know the warning signs. If you find that you often spend money without really thinking about what you’re buying or why, and you fit the description of an impulse buyer, you may have an impulse buying tendency. If you get a lot of enjoyment from shopping or are a comfort shopper, you may be buying as a way to experience pleasure and are probably buying some products on impulse. If you get a sudden urge to buy something after you play around with it, or after realizing you can buy it immediately, or after thinking of a friend who owns it, you’re probably experiencing an impulse buying urge that came from a connection between you and the product.  Ultimately, an easy way to tell if a purchase is impulsive is to ask “Did I plan to buy this, or did I get the urge to buy it just now?” If you didn’t plan to buy it, you’re probably experiencing an impulse buying urge. By putting that product back on the shelf and refusing to purchase it, you’re doing something to help yourself. You’re rejecting the idea that by purchasing that product you’ll be happier, better respected, or more complete. In so doing, you’ll not only get to keep more of your money, but you’ll become a smarter consumer and possibly a happier person.

Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D., is an experimental psychologist who studies consumer behavior in order to help consumers make better, smarter buying decisions.

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