This holiday season is often called the most stressful time of the year, with gift shopping and being in debt cited as being highly stressful by over a third of Americans. It may come as a surprise to see shopping on the list of holiday stresses, as shopping and impulse buying are often associated with pleasure and hedonic desires, where the result is immediate and often very gratifying.

But my research, published this year, found that almost 25% of young people engage in impulsive buying so they can avoid stress and anxiety. This leads to a negative cycle: you shop and engage in impulsive purchases to reduce stress, but shopping leads to more stress instead.

So why do some people shop more and buy more impulsively than others? To find the answer to this question, we recruited over 150 young adults and gave them tests of personality and working memory (the ability to process and remember information).

There were 2 key factors that predicted impulsive buying behavior:

1) Motor Impulsivity

This trait impulsivity was measured by statements such as “I act on spur of the moment” and predicted 44% of impulsive buying behavior.

2) Cognitive Complexity

The more an individual engages in problem solving behavior and plays puzzles, the less likely they are to buy impulsively.

Joshua Dean @jpdx
Source: Joshua Dean @jpdx

Is there an antidote to impulsive buying and making it through the holiday season a little less stressed from shopping? Yes – give experiential gifts. Researchers found that people are happier and more satisfied with an experience compared to new things. And this happiness lasts longer too because our experiences are connected to our identity more than material goods

So instead of buying a pony, spend the day at the farm and hug a pony. That experience will make you happier for longer.


Alloway T.P., Gerzina, A., & Moulder, R. (2016). Investigating the roles of affective processes, trait impulsivity, and working memory in impulsive buying behaviors. Comprehensive Psychology.

About the Author

Tracy P Alloway Ph.D.

Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of North Florida. Formerly, she was director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan, U.K.  

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