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This Is Your Brain On Holiday Shopping

When you're shopping, you're the subject of a multi-pronged sensory campaign.

As evolved human beings, we’re rational, in-control shoppers. We weigh costs with benefits, compare prices, and never buy on impulse or more than what we need. Right?

In the past 20 years I’ve interviewed hundreds of shoppers — and I’ve yet to find one immune to (at least occasional) emotional or impulsive purchasing.

A peek in the recesses of our closet and cabinets is proof of our fallibility. Who among us hasn’t thought to themselves, “what was I thinking when I bought that?”

Most likely you weren’t thinking. Or at least not as clearly as usual. The fact is that nearly every shopper is influenced by environmental cues they are never aware of.

We so greatly value our brains that we underestimate — even ignore — the influence of the rest of our body on what we buy. But physiological signals work around our rational brains and they greatly influence our shopping behavior.

While shoppers, sure of the rationality of their purchasing behavior, might ignore the powerful influence that our senses have on our moods, desires and willingness to spend money — retailers are not. When you’re shopping, you’re the subject of a multi-pronged sensory campaign.

We’re in the busiest shopping season of the year. And while online shopping will play a major role, 98% of shoppers still plan to visit stores. Before you head out there, explore this mini-guide of a few of the ways our body influences what we buy.


Colors create more than a scene. They’re loaded with symbolic associations and influence our moods and perceptions. With red and green being the predominant colors of the season, here’s how they affect us.

Red stimulates and energizes — even our spending. Waitresses wearing red receive 14 to 26% higher tips than waitresses wearing any other color uniform. Another study found that shoppers on eBay bid more aggressively for products shown against red backgrounds than blue backgrounds.

Green is an optimistic color associated with luck and wealth. It’s also been shown to have a positive effect on creativity. A possible explanation for some of the more unusual gifts found under the tree.


Smells make a direct hit to emotional centers of our brain. They have a unique ability to evoke moods and memories. It’s no surprise that Bloomingdale’s, Jimmy Choo, Hugo Boss, Victoria’s Secret and scores of other retailers use scents to stimulate positive and associative moods and enhance our perception of their brands and products.

Studies have shown that the right scent can increase our perception of the quality of a product and get people to shop longer.

That quintessential holiday scent, pine, can evoke a feeling happiness, earthy wholesomeness and nostalgia. Just the right mix to get early holiday shoppers in the mood to buy. Another holiday favorite smell, peppermint, increases physiological arousal and engagement and creates more alert shoppers.


If you’ve ever watched a movie without a soundtrack, you know the power of music to create moods and intensify emotions. Classics like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” get people into the holiday spirit, which for most is also a spending and gifting mood.

More importantly, classic holiday music evokes nostalgia. Recent research shows that nostalgia elevates positive moods and helps people feel better about themselves. They feel more connected to others and find continuity and meaning in their lives.

Nostalgia evokes the past in a rosy haze. Particularly in uncertain economic times, nostalgia transports people from the present back to a time that feels more positive and in their control. After all, no matter what your past was like, you know what happened next and that makes life feel more certain.

Feeling more connected to others, positive and loaded with holiday spirit is a recipe of on-the-spot bumps in gift budgets.


Jeannie seemed out of breath when I spoke with her recently at an outlet mall. “I think I’m kind of hyped up. There are so many people here and so many bargains. I feel like I’m going to miss out or that they’ll get the deal before me.” Jeannie was able to articulate what many feel when they’re shopping during the holidays — pressure, competition and anxiety. These emotions cause our bodies to react — in ways that interfere with calm decision-making. Any marital therapist will tell couples to wait until they are calm before discussing a hot-button issues. People tend to overreact and then regret. The same mechanisms are in play when shopping under pressure, often with a similar result: over-purchasing and buyer’s remorse. Whether it’s the stress of crowds, time pressures, fears of missing out or physical exhaustion and thirst — we think less clearly when our heart starts racing.


We’re significantly more likely to buy what we touch. Which is why retailers carefully design stores with merchandise roadblocks and tactile displays. Several recent studies show that the sensation of what we’re touching can even alter our perception of an unrelated product that we’re viewing. For example, in one experiment people who held a warm pad invested 43% more money than those holding a cold pad.

We’re naturally drawn toward the center of displays, where retailers often place pricier items. But the second most alluring placement is just to the right of center, the item most right-handed people are most likely to touch first.

Combating the budget-breaking allure of the sights, sounds and sensations of holiday shopping is as simple as being aware of their effects. Further reinforcement for the rational mind comes from lists and shopping breaks.

Illustration by Julien Tromeur