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Why Are Certain Buying Impulses Harmful?

Many buying impulses conflict with our values and short- and long-term goals.

Over the past month, our lives have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. During challenging and anxious times such as these, our shopping behavior changes dramatically. After 9/11, for example, many Americans purchased more comfort foods and sweets and gained significant weight. After the 2008 recession, in contrast, people became more frugal and price-sensitive.

This time around, in response to prolonged self-isolation and fears about the future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have been panic buying for weeks now. This has overloaded fragile supply chains and harmed consumers financially. But that’s at a high level. For individuals, buying impulses can be harmful for other psychological reasons. In this post, I want to consider in more depth the psychological distinction between benign and harmful buying impulses, and why certain impulses are harmful.

The Consonant Buying Impulse

A buying impulse is a sudden urge to buy something without any planning or forethought. In my own research, I’ve found that once a consumer experiences a buying impulse, an important factor in understanding its effects is the presence of potential constraining factors. A constraining factor is an aspect, either endemic to the consumer or part of the environment, that makes the enactment of the buying impulse problematic for the consumer. If they gain awareness in time, it makes the individual stop momentarily and consider whether to pull back or act on the buying urge.

Source: Frankie Cordoba/Unsplash
Woman impulse shopping.
Source: Frankie Cordoba/Unsplash

For example, during a panic buying spree at a local grocery store, if you encounter your favorite frozen pizza brand that you normally eat once a week, there is no harm in buying two or three boxes impulsively. You will simply be stocking up and will consume the pizzas in due course. Because of its benign effects, this is a consonant buying impulse.

The word consonant means “in agreement or harmony with.” Naturally, in my research, I defined a consonant buying impulse as one that is “viewed by the consumer as harmonious with his or her goals, resources, and situation.” We all experience consonant buying impulses frequently. Having an urge to buy ice cream once in a while is harmless for most people. With a consonant buying impulse, we go with the flow and act on the impulse.

The Dissonant Buying Impulse

The problem arises when the buying impulse has one or more constraining factors with the potential to cause problems for us. This is when we try to exert some control over our buying impulse and try to stifle it. (Social psychologists call this mechanism a “counteractive control.”) The constraining factor usually has to do with the object of our buying impulse; however, it can also be about the shopping environment or, more broadly, about the situation in which we experience the buying impulse. Here are four examples of constraining factors:

1. The desired product is too expensive. A buying urge for an item like a new pair of branded shoes, an electronic appliance, or even a vehicle that is beyond your means is dissonant. While it may be possible to make the purchase with a credit card or an installment loan, acting on the buying urge is likely to result in long-term financial harm.

2. The desired object is too unhealthy. An urge to purchase and consume a food item that is likely to harm your health, given your current physical condition, is a good example of this dissonant impulse. There is a vast amount of research that shows that such impulsivity leads to eating disorders as well as other adverse health outcomes.

3. The attraction to the object is momentary. A buying urge for something that you find momentarily attractive but unlikely to be used or appreciated in the future is also dissonant. This often happens when people engage in shopping activities as retail therapy to repair a bad mood. For example, many of us have garments and shoes in our closets with price tags still on them, or that have been worn once or twice.

4. The desired amount is excessive. An urge to buy a lot, far more than is needed, is a dissonant impulse. This can occur any time, but it has been happening a lot recently, during panic shopping when people buy far more than is reasonable and spend beyond their grocery budget. (See the video below):

How to manage dissonant buying impulses

Dissonant buying impulses need to be self-regulated. However, in many cases, self-control fails, and we end up buying the object impulsively even when it is clear this will cause us harm. Research shows that emotional regulation has a lot to do with our ability to stifle dissonant buying urges. If we are feeling anxious, for example, we use impulsive buying as a way to feel better. As I’ve written before, this offers a way to feel a bit more in control of an environment that seems to be spiraling out of control.

What does all this mean during the COVID-19 pandemic? We can draw three valuable lessons. First, we are experiencing negative emotions like anxiety and fear and looking for ways to regulate these negative emotions. Second, buying impulses offer us an easy way to repair our bad mood. After all, with an internet connection and a credit card at our disposal, shopping is just a mouse click or two away. Third, given our anxiety, many of our buying impulses are likely to be dissonant and come with strings attached.

We need to acknowledge when they are potentially harmful and change into a mindset of thinking and making buying decisions deliberately instead of simply acting on our impulse. We also need to find other avenues to regulate our negative emotions and experience positive emotions. Instead of retail therapy, we could try another form of therapy—gardening, music, conversation, meditation, or any number of other activities that don’t involve making purchases.