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Mental Health Tips for Smarter Shopping This Holiday Season

Why holiday sales are so hard to resist.

Key points

  • Retailers have come up with sophisticated methods of nudging people to spend more money.
  • Shopping deals can be disastrous for those who are pathological spenders.
  • Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t buy the product being advertised.
Heidi Fin / Unsplash
Source: Heidi Fin / Unsplash

With the holidays just around the corner, retailers across the country are ready and waiting with deals that consumers can’t ignore.

Although retailers offering discounts during the holiday season is a tradition that goes back centuries, it is only since the 1950s that Black Friday has evolved into the celebration of consumerism that it is today.

In 2005, when online shopping started to gain traction, the National Retail Federation coined the term Cyber Monday to refer to the day online discounts would be made available to shoppers who were not able to buy what they wanted on Black Friday.

Today, the commercial success of Black Friday and Cyber Monday has spawned an entire week of discounts and deals that have become an essential part of the holiday shopping experience.

In today’s world of targeted ads and social media influencers, retailers have come up with sophisticated methods of nudging people to spend more money over the holidays than they may be comfortable with.

Enticing as it may be, it is crucial to understand that holiday shopping deals can be disastrous for many who are pathological spenders. Aside from the financial harm it can cause, compulsive buyers are also at risk of developing relationship problems and serious mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Here are two things that make us succumb to the flaws in our rationality and coax us into spending more around the holidays.

1. Overexposure and ego depletion

A classic study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people are exposed to a certain idea or item repeatedly, their attitude towards it becomes more favorable. This is called exposure bias, or the mere exposure effect.

Marketing departments understand this and use exposure bias during the holidays to create needs within us.

For example, regardless of whether we actually need a new phone, repeatedly being shown an ad for a new and better phone creates a fondness for it inside of us that can trigger a decision to buy it.

The holiday shopping season also promotes what psychologists call ego depletion. This is a state of suggestibility that we find ourselves in when we are exposed to too much information.

In an ego-depleted state, our ability to make conscious, well-thought-out purchases suffers. We tend to follow the path of least resistance, which often means we end up spending on expensive things that are marketed as ‘‘the best.’’

A good way to protect yourself from exposure bias and ego depletion is to ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t buy the product being advertised.

  • Is your quality of life going to take a hit?
  • What are some things you could do with the money you save from not making the purchase?
  • Is there a cheaper alternative you could find that works as well as the product being advertised?
  • Is there a more opportune time to buy the product?
  • Would it be okay to buy just one product instead of the eight you currently have in your shopping cart?

In doing so, your purchasing decisions will be more mindful and your mental health and bank account will thank you for it.

2. The bandwagon effect

The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon that occurs when people are more likely to do or believe something simply because others are doing it. This desire to conform to societal norms is deeply ingrained in human nature; it’s part of what allows us to function as a unified society.

One study published in Current Issues in Personality Psychology found that people were more likely to buy luxury items and proudly display their logos if they saw ads that featured celebrities endorsing them. When we see happy or successful people using luxury products, the demand for these products goes up.

Marketing teams exploit this basic human tendency during the holidays to send the message that buying more things brings families closer and makes people happier. This is why ads around the holidays often feature happy families gifting each other expensive things.

Another study found that the fear of missing out (FOMO) was also a significant factor in people’s purchasing decisions. People who have higher levels of FOMO were found to be more open to the idea of buying luxury products if they saw that others had purchased them too.

Here are some things you can do to avoid being carried away by the holiday shopping bandwagon:

  • Take your time with purchasing decisions. The bandwagon effect is very common among people who experience ego depletion. Try to avoid making purchasing decisions when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, or in a state of uncertainty. Take 24 hours, and come back to it once you have made an informed decision.
  • Make a pros and cons list. Sometimes, writing out why a product is right or wrong for you can give you new insights into what you actually require. You may find that the product is something you may not need right now and that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
  • Examine the origin of the bandwagon effect for a particular product. If a product genuinely adds value to people’s lives, you will see it for yourself. If a product is being endorsed by a celebrity or a paid influencer, there is a good chance you may not actually need it.


The holiday shopping season is a rough time for those who struggle with their spending habits. The first step to making fulfilling purchasing decisions is to understand that you may not always act on your free will, especially around the holidays. Once you accept this, it is a matter of addressing the flaws in your rationality. If you think you may need help overcoming negligent spending habits, it’s always a good idea to talk it over with a mental health professional.

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