Seven Reasons Why We Buy Things We Don’t Need
Unnecessary purchases are about more than just tastes, money and marketing.
Published on September 25, 2013 by Alain Samson, Ph.D. in Consumed
Let’s face it, we all sometimes buy things we don’t really need, whether it’s a pair of expensive designer jeans, an extra slice of cheesecake, or an upgrade from last year’s smart phone model. It's more than just our tastes and the money we have available that determine those unnecessary acquisitions. Here’s my list of seven psychological reasons we do it:
1. We’re swayed by MARKETING
One of the most frequently mentioned influences on consumer behavior is, of course, marketing. Advertising makes us remember and recognize brands better, whilst also affecting our preferences and perceived needs. It changes our attitudes towards products. Effective advertising doesn’t simply provide rational arguments in favor of a purchase, but works through emotions as well. The most successful ads on the internet—the ones that go viral—are those that trigger the right emotions, such as surprise or amusement.
Marketing also designs and packages products to make them more appealing, frames messages in more convincing ways, and makes price promotions hard to resist. Did you really plan to get those potato chips or did you just buy them because of the ‘Buy One Get One Free’ offer?
2. We copy OTHER PEOPLE
We’re not just influenced by clever marketing, but also consumers like us. Sometimes we imitate others to fit in, and at other times we copy people because we’re uncertain about the best choice. Our peers play an important part in this process.
But copying others is not limited to people we know or making conscious choices. Simply noticing what other people around us consume can affect what we buy—often unconsciously. This may be as basic as buying an ice cream in the park after seeing others eat some first. The iPhone is another example. Apple works with powerful cues signaling ownership that are apparent even when the phone itself is hidden from view. Have you ever wondered why Apple earphones are still only available in white and why they don’t offer more diversity in generic ring tones (‘Old Phone’ appears to be the most popular one)?
3. We’re IMPULSIVE
Dispositions affect behavior, including what we do as consumers. One such trait is impulsiveness. As with any personality trait, some people are more impulsive than others. In some cases, this disposition can be part of problems like ADHD or bipolar disorder, and those of us who tend to make unplanned purchases are considered impulsive buyers. One study found that impulsive buyers tend to react more to external triggers than other consumers, including advertisements, visual product elements and promotional gifts.
An important part of the brain related to impulsivity is the striatum, which is activated by stimuli associated with reward. Neuroscience research suggests that simply seeing more attractive product packaging can lead to greater activity in the "reward center" of the brain among impulsive buyers.
What happens once we've made that impulse purchase? We rationalize it. Justifying an unnecessary purchase is a skill that many of us have come to master very well.
4. We’re tempted by certain PRODUCTS
Many impulse purchases involve so-called hedonic products, things that give us pleasure or enjoyment. Examples include candy, a DVD or wine. Another type (which can overlap with hedonics) are symbolic products, goods that are associated with our self-image, as illustrated by a designer suit, perfume or a flashy gizmo. Both of these product types are strongly linked to our emotions.
When we think of impulse purchases we don’t usually consider utilitarian or functional items like screw drivers or cleaning supplies. (Naturally, the more practical a product, the easier it is also for us to justify that we truly need it in the first place.) Although these products are not prime candidates for unplanned purchases, it probably comes as no surprise that men are more likely than women to buy utilitarian goods on impulse.
5. We succumb to our MOODS
Emotions are a major influence on the way we think and act. 'Hot states', such as hunger, craving or arousal, compel us to satisfy our immediate needs, which may occur at the expense of more long-term considerations.
Moods also affect us. When we feel good, we have higher energy levels and like to reward ourselves more generously. We let down our guard to some extent by switching off the more reflective part of our mind in favor of intuition or impulse. In the study on impulse buying mentioned previously, 51% of respondents said that "feeling happy" was a trigger for unplanned purchases. Negative feelings can also lead to unnecessary purchases. Among compulsive buyers (people with a repeated urge to buy), for example, a purchase often helps transform a negative affective state, such as depression or sadness, into a positive state.
6. We’re affected by STATES OF MIND
Different states of mind are another factor in moments of consumer decision making. Cues in our environment can change our mindset. For example, research in a wine store found that people bought more expensive wines when classical music was played in the background than when they heard Top 40 music.
Other states of mind relate to our thinking resources. When we are distracted, preoccupied or under time pressure, our capacity to reflect and deliberate is limited, and we are more likely to be influenced by subtle cues or act on impulse. One famous experiment made consumers choose between fruit salad and chocolate. Some of the people in the experiment had to memorize a seven-digit number. 63% of them chose the chocolate cake, compared to only 42% of those whose processing capacity wasn’t limited.
We can expect similar effects when we are mentally depleted (say, after a long day at work), which reduces our ability to control our willpower.
7. We don’t like CHANGE
Human resistance to change commonly takes one of two forms. The first is habit, which is about doing the same thing repeatedly. Buying habits can persist even when needs or preferences change. In my favorite experiment on habit, one group of participants was given fresh and another group stale popcorn before watching a movie. People also rated their liking of the popcorn and indicated the strength of their usual habit to eat popcorn in movie theaters. Those with strong habits ended up consuming equal amounts, regardless of how stale or fresh it was, and despite the fact that they disliked the stale popcorn. Non-habitual eaters consumed less of the stale variety.
The second type of resistance to change is a more general state of inertia, which is often about inaction (you may call it laziness). This may work to the advantage of companies, such as utility providers. Assuming you’re no longer locked into your mobile phone contract, do you really still need to be on the ‘500 free minutes per month’ plan, given that your actual call time has dropped to about 200 minutes?
Compulsive buying like all addictions are symptoms of something else that is wrong in our lives. Life is all about CONTROL and PURPOSE. Life is about how we choose to think and respond. Let's be realistic, life is fraught with continuous daily circumstances that render us feeling temporarily out of control, trapped, helpless powerless. Psychotherapists tell us, that the behaviors used to respond to these issues, are all about regaining control of the situation. A chemical abuser might exhibit displaced behavior which is an attempt to regain control of stress, with drinking, a person with a short temper might often respond with expletives and finger gesture, others might look at porn and yes even buy things needlessly in order to change one's mood, etc. When we respond with direct behavior, Christ Driven Behavior, the control is given to God (my grace is sufficient for you for there is power in weakness" 2 Corinthians 12-9). Then, God returns the control to YOU, "And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever." John 14:16. When you regain control of life with Christ Driven Direct Behavior you are in Control as you respond with the values and character of Jesus Christ. "You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!" Philippians 4:13. With God in Control, our Purpose is ensured and insured. With God in control, we exhibit the values of Jesus Christ, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Galatians 5:22-23