The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

A Simple Cure to Impulsive Overspending

A new study shows that an attitude of gratitude tempers impulsive urges

If you, like many, impulsively spend and then regret it, there is a simple cure. Gratitude.

A study recently published in Psychological Science shows that an attitude of gratitude tempers impulsive urges. In the study, participants had the option of choosing 54 dollars now, or 80 dollars in a month.The researchers then induced moods of either happiness, neutrality or gratitude. Participants in the happy or neutral groups preferred the smaller sum immediately - that’s the typical response in delayed gratification experiments. The surprise came from those who felt grateful–they preferred to wait for the larger sum.

The authors don’t say why gratitude forestalls impulsiveness, but their findings make sense within the context of my own research. I’ve found that people typically purchase impulsively for one of two reasons: to counteract a sense of emptiness, boredom or an void in their lives; or because they are not fully focused while they’re making a purchase. Gratitude is the antidote to both.

The Fill-Up

Impulsively snapping up a bargain or a trinket (or more) can provide an emotional boost–even a momentary thrill. A void–which can range in magnitude from simple boredom, to a deep emotional need for human connection–is temporarily filled. Sometimes the pleasure of something new or the distraction of a transaction are what people are shopping for–not so much what they’ve just purchased.

People that “fill-up” with impulsive purchases are often thought to be motivated by simple greed. What I’ve found is that the catalyst is not so much greed or materialism, but emotional relief. Momentary lapses of impulse control are frequently fueled by an urge to feel something different –an emotion other than that gnawing need.

Feelings of gratitude, not just for possessions but for anything–a friendly encounter, a cool breeze, a tasty lunch, or a beautiful landscape–are nourishing. It’s harder to feel that void when you notice how much you have. It makes sense that everyone, not just impulsive shoppers, exhibit greater levels of impulse control when they feel grateful.

The Focus Deficit

Sleep deficiencies, multi-tasking and anxiety are on the rise. That means focused decision making, particularly on seemingly non-urgent tasks such as shopping, are on the decline. No wonder I increasingly hear, “What was I thinking when I bought this?” from the shoppers I interview. An exhausted, distracted brain pays less attention to everything and therefore has less bandwidth to forestall impulsive purchasing.

The calming focus of gratitude can help–at least with impulsive spending. A few seconds of thankfulness is not only a mood elevator, it’s a fast and simple mindfulness exercise that improves focus.

The more obvious solution of simply trying to force yourself to pay close attention to purchase transactions is harder than it seems. Why? It’s comparatively boring when pitted against the thrill of the purchase and therefore an exercise that’s easily forgotten. Also, paying attention to purchasing has the potential of arousing negative emotions in the form of a slew of “shoulds” or budgeting issues. Our self-protective brains are likely to look for an “out”, so once again forgetting or faking it with a quick superficial semi-focus are strong possibilities. That’s why so many shoppers experience a mismatch between their good intentions and ultimate actions when it comes to shopping.

Gratitude is a gentle way to force focus and it creates a sense of abundance that transcends the need for a momentary shopping boost. There are lots of other benefits to feeling and expressing gratitude–most notably, happiness.

 

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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