That feeling. You know the one. The adrenaline rush and desire you feel even thinking about it. You need your next fix. When you’re close to it, you can’t stop yourself — from buying, that is.

For some of us, the signs shouting 50% off, one-day-only sale and clearance are not so different from the siren call for other types of addictions: the feeling of winning at shopping a sale is not unlike the addiction to alcohol, drugs or even food, therapists say.

The feeling of winning at shopping a sale is not unlike the addiction to alcohol, drugs or even food

Even those of us not diagnosed with true compulsive buying disorder (an impulse control disorder recognised by some mental health professionals) can experience a similar rush. That’s why even the casual shopper finds it challenging to exercise self-control at the cash register.

In reality, we typically decide on a purchase in a split second, without much rational thought, says Keonyoung Oh, an associate professor at State University of New York Buffalo. Oh specialises in neuromarketing, an emerging field that tracks consumer behaviour through neuroscience.

We don’t employ the usual process of weighing the outcome when it comes to the lure of sale tags; instead “most of our decisions to buy something are made instantly”, says Oh, who studies brainwaves to track subtle peaks in emotions. We don’t employ the usual process of weighing the outcome like we would in the workplace, because these types of emotional decisions are often made subconsciously due to the human brain structure, she adds.

We need more. We have to have more. We need the high again

The instant we decide to buy, we feel good and there’s a rush of positive emotion. But afterwards, similar to a drug addict or alcoholic, intense feelings of guilt after indulging can make it difficult to rebound, says Kit Yarrow, San Francisco-based consumer psychologist and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind. We need more. We have to have more. We need the high again. We have to go back for more.

If it all sounds so out of our control, it might not be. The key is to understand exactly what’s happening as the desire sets in.

The thrill of the hunt

Entering a favourite store or logging onto your favourite shopping website is the catalyst. This very action tells your body that it should start producing greater amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes it feel good to keep shopping and searching for pleasure and rewards, says Darren Bridger, London-based consultant at Neurostrata, a neuromarketing research firm.

Most of us spend less than a second deciding on whether or not to make a purchase

Shopping “is kind of like a treasure hunt,” he says. “The search itself is highly motivating.”

Much of what happens next is outside of the sort of rational decision-making we employ all the time — the sort that makes us avoid sloppiness on a work project or think twice about reckless driving. Most of us spend less than a second deciding on whether or not to make the purchase, according to Oh. During that burst, the spike in brainwaves occurs to signal what Oh calls “emotional engagement” in a specific product.

Most of the time, those impulses are triggered by our previous experiences with specific brands (a secret of effective marketing) or spotting items already on our wish list, she adds. (Hint: if you know you can’t control your desire for sneakers, make sure you really need a pair before you walk into a shoe store.)

This physiological arousal was designed to protect us from bears, not other shoppers

Beat your brain at shopping

1. Check prices last to lessen the urge to spend on an unneeded bargain
2. If possible, put items on hold and make the purchase the next day to lessen impulse buying.
3. To avoid being victim to retail marketing strategies, search online only for specific items
4. Feeling satisfied rather than guilty after a purchase can help keep future spending in check

Most of us are not actually addicted to the things we buy. Rather, it’s the process of shopping that can become a tough habit to break in the same sort of way it’s hard to break free from eating disorders, drugs and drinking, says Angela Wurtzel, a therapist who works with compulsive shoppers in Santa Barbara, California. The feelings of wellbeing begin when a shopper begins to think about the experience, which can be days or even weeks before they head to a store, she says.

“The whole process starts when you’re looking forward to it — it’s not that different from thinking about getting a drink,” she says.

Working against your inner desires

Sales — like those we salivate over on Black Friday, a day of bargains in the US and elsewhere across the globe — can be especially difficult for us to keep at bay. During a sale, the body’s autonomic notice system (the system that triggers the fight or flight response) reflexively takes control of some organs, which creates a heightened response in the body, similar to the one early humans had when encountering predators, says Yarrow.

The fear of missing out on a purchase can switch us into a “competitive mode” which makes it difficult to control the impulse to buy something that could be bought by someone else first,she says. In the past, this “physiological arousal was designed to protect us from bears, not other shoppers,” she says. “The reason [our response] is so powerful, is because people don’t think about it,” says Yarrow.

Conversely, while some of us feel excited and competitive, others experience a slower heart rate and use shopping to relax and escape from daily problems, says Wurtzel. “Some people report exhilaration and less anxiety and more of a calming of their nerves,” she says.

No safety in numbers

Think you can go to the mall with your friends and they’ll act as a buffer for your addiction? Not exactly — having friends in tow actually entices you to shop.

Bringing friends, encountering other shoppers at the store or reading online reviews can increase feelings of connectedness, which makes it easier to go through with a purchase even if we do feel a flicker of hesitation.

And you won’t even realise it. Most of the time, these changes are only visible through brainwaves or larger pupils, rather than a quickening heartbeat or tense muscles, Oh says.

We are very bad at predicting how things will make us feel

There is some hope. For starters, force yourself to avoid the bargain (just like you’d avoid a pub if you no longer drink). And, rather than checking price tags first, Yarrow recommends looking at the price tag after you are interested in the product to reduce “bargain frenzy”. Online, don’t click through to the sale section first.

“You have to calm yourself down and force yourself to be logical about the whole thing,” she says.

And remember, buyer’s remorse almost always follows addictive shopping.

 “It’s very easy to trigger that motivation to search, but people might overestimate how much pleasure they get once they found the thing that they buy,” says Bridger — something to bear in mind when rushing to the sales this shopping season.

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