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As we enter the season of giving, we inevitably enter the season of shopping. According to the National Retail Federation’s Cyber Monday Expectations Survey, 121 million shoppers plan to shop online today. That’s on top of the 103 million people who reportedly shopped online this past weekend, with nearly $5 billion spent on holiday sales. Is it really the season of shopping, given that we have sales literally at our fingertips year-round? Or is this a result of clever marketing? Or is it, perhaps, down to how our brain is wired?

A lot of human behavior has been molded over centuries of experiences. As trite as it sounds, shopping for a pair of shoes today can feel as primal as hunting did to our ancestors. Ask someone who has just purchased something on the spot why they did it and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more enlightened answer than, “Because I liked it!”. That’s because it was likely an emotional reaction, which in the brain is akin to taking the highway straight to our pleasure center without stopping for directions from the cognitive control center. Motivation typically helps us move toward a desirable outcome (I want that piece of cake) or away from an aversive outcome (I do not want to lose at this game). And looking at an object of desire triggers a set of emotions not too different from anticipating a tasty morsel.

And how does the mention of “sale” factor in? Well, our amygdala activates, sending fearful memories of that time we missed out on the great sale where the item sold out. Our insula calculates our financial risk (“This dress is basically a week’s pay, so is it really worth it?”) It also curls our lips at the outrageous price on the tablet in the store that refuses to have a sale. The orbitofrontal cortex tugs at our heartstrings with sensations of potential regret (“What if I see someone else in this dress?”), while the cingulate cortex tries to make sense of all of these emotions into a plan of attack.

But often, by the time the cortex is calculating the best decision, our limbic system has already swiped our credit card. Walking away from the store, bag in hand, a rush of dopamine sweeps over the nucleus accumbens, making us feel pretty good about ourselves. Enter retail therapy. Research suggests it can temporarily lift moods, after all.

Cognitive control over our emotions can help curb hasty purchases fueled by a frenzied retail environment. While there are a few tips to help avoid the rush of a sale, such as taking more time to think it over, paying in cash and making a list of necessary goods, training the mind to curb the automatic emotional response can also shift our behavior from that of a hasty shopper to a more mindful one. Perhaps then, the reason given for a purchase will be closer to, “Because I need it.”

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