Why We Like Online Shopping, and Delayed Gratification

Buying fast, then waiting for it in the mail, makes for an enjoyable experience.

Posted Nov 14, 2016

People really love to shop, especially around the holidays. But we are also inherently lazy (or, we have a strong desire to conserve energy, in evolutionary terms). Shopping while sitting in front of a computer, wearing our cozy slippers, and have it delivered to your door?! This evolution—need it, find it online, buy it (and then wait for it in the mail)—can actually make for an enjoyable expedience and the perfect return shopper, according to one potent principle of psychology known as delayed gratification.

Online shopping has now become a trillion dollar business. Brick and mortar stores are fading and falling, with many new businesses not needing or wanting to pay for it. 

Barring drone delivery service, the only seemingly hiccup for online shopping is that you have to wait (3-5 business days, sometimes). But perhaps that is what keeps us coming back for more, and enjoying the process so much, even if we are not aware of it. Could it be a necessary part of the process that keeps us coming back for more? Delayed gratification can enhance our appreciation of things, even if only for a brief period, and will keep us tethered to the entire process, want it, need it, see it, evaluate, eventually choose one out of 3,485 options of shoes, then wait, and finally enjoy (or return).

Delayed gratification may be the most lucrative psychological principle at play (and at pay)—the main reason people love to shop online, and can’t stop. Buy it, but get it later, and waiting patiently makes it that much more desired. And we will come back for that feeling or anticipation, tracking our package, getting a surprise in the mail—even if the whole psychological process is not always something we are consciously aware of. It is the same principle behind Christmas—you see gifts under the tree, but have to wait for your presents, making you want them even more—and every year your desires heighten (even if you are slightly disappointed in the end).

Often delayed gratification is defined in terms of putting off an early initial reward for a greater reward in the future. However, in the case of internet shopping, the reward might come in terms of easy shopping now, versus more effortful but more immediate in-store shopping. Thus, the delay in gratifying one's initial wants and demands results in the anticipatory pleasure that is experienced while waiting for the product to arrive in the mail. 

Delayed gratification has a strong brain response. One study examined the neural basis of delayed gratification by having people choose between obtaining an immediate gift certificate, as opposed to a gift card with a larger amount in the future,  In general, people’s reward system (such as dopamine neurons and nucleus accumbens) were highly activated in this task. The future gift certificate people showed more pre-frontal cortex activity, part of the brain responsible for rational planning and decision-making. Online shopping might lead to a dopamine burst when initially making a purchase, but also some additional reward activation while waiting for it to arrive (e.g., while tracking the package, checking the mail, etc.). Thus, it could be a slower and more drawn-out neural reward system at play, leading to high anticipation and pleasure of soon receiving a desired item in the mail.

One might think that impulse shopping is that much easier online, but since you don’t get it right away, and you know you won’t, you might actually be less likely to make purchases with contemplating thousands of possible options. And sometimes more options leads to a bias to not purchase, the paradox of having too many choices. That is why you might have a full virtual cart, only at the last second decide you can’t decide, and don’t buy anything.

Online shopping has many benefits, and we might actually enjoy this virtual experience more than going to busy crowded stores, waiting in line, and then not feeling quite so satisfied with our purchase. Black Friday might again be time for family, as many stores are actually closing during this holiday, while Cyber Monday caters more to the principles of psychology and the joys of delayed gratification.