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You may have noticed that checkout lines often have whozits and whatzits galore, but your opinion of them mostly depends on how a couple different regions of your brain work.

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Sources:
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[INTRO ♪].

You’ve probably noticed that in a lot of stores, they make you run through a gauntlet of candy bars, nail clippers, and phone chargers before you can pay and make your escape into the outside world. Maybe you wonder who buys all that stuff.

Or maybe you’re already unwrapping a candy bar you had not planned to buy. Those bins are just one of the tricks retailers use to get you to impulse buy, where you purchase something without planning for it in advance. That means you are spending more money than you were originally going to, so you can see why stores would try so hard to get you to do it.

But whether their tricks work depends a lot on your personality, and how your brain reacts to perceived gains and losses. Impulse buyers tend to be impulsive in general, which isn’t too surprising. In a 2016 survey of nearly 1500 people, those that said they were likely to spend a hypothetical windfall impulsively also reported higher levels of other impulsive behavior, like binge drinking and unprotected sex.

And a lot of psychologists think these choices come down to the same thing: a battle between parts of your brain. One part, called the nucleus accumbens, activates in proportion to how excited you’ll be to have that new thing you want. It’s the same region that activates for what are known as primary reward drives—things like food and sex.

Another part of the brain, the insula, has a big reaction to something else: the price. The bigger the price, the more the insula activates. Psychologists call this reaction the “pain of paying” because the insula also activates when we expect to be hurt physically, and when we’re exposed to negative things like horrible smells.

Meanwhile, a third region, the mesial prefrontal cortex, also plays a role— it, too, reacts to the price, activating when you think you’ve gotten a good deal. Researchers are able to do a pretty good job predicting whether someone will make a purchase by comparing activation in these three regions. But not everyone’s brain reacts the same way to the same deal, which has led some psychologists to think that we all fall on a spectrum of "pain of paying”— basically, how much spending money bothers us.

On one end are the spendthrifts, who just don’t really feel that pain. They think nothing of spending some extra money if they've got it. That’s what it's there for, right?

On the other end are the tightwads, who will wait until the last minute to pull out their wallets, even for things they definitely need— for them, the pain of paying is more like the agony of paying. And I know this personally. I sweat, I get hot, I get—my armpits go.

It’s, like, the least comfortable I ever am. Spendthrifts are naturally impulsive buyers, and not necessarily because they have more money to spend. A 2007 survey of over 9000 people found those at the spendthrift end of the spectrum had more credit card debt.

But even though tightwads don’t like spending money, they’re more vulnerable to certain types of tricks designed to get them spending money they don’t intend to. That’s because they really feel anything that reduces their intense pain of paying. Since spendthrifts aren’t pained anyway, ploys to reduce pain don’t work as well on them.

For example, in one 2007 study, researchers asked 538 college students if they were willing to pay a five dollar fee to get overnight delivery on a new purchase. But for half the people, they called it the "small five dollar fee" to reduce the pain of paying. That one word didn't matter to the spendthrifts at all— about the same amount paid the fee either way.

But just describing the fee as "small" made the tightwads feel much better about paying the price— about three times as many thought that it was worth it to get the delivery overnighted. What? Excuse me, I have to go make some changes to DFTBA.com.

Other research has found a similar effect with using credit cards, which are thought to reduce the pain of paying by keeping the actual, physical money out of sight and out of mind. In a shopping study on 125 students, paying by credit card instead of cash didn't affect the spendthrifts’ buying behaviors at all, but tightwads were more willing to spend money on unhealthy stuff they didn't need. Those candy bar displays don’t really reduce the pain of paying in any way, so they’re probably not the type of trick that will get the tightwads spending more.

But sticking a bunch of tempting chocolate in front of the spendthrifts passing through? That might get some cash. Your spending habits may also be influenced by another personality trait— whether you're what psychologists call a "maximizer" or a "satisficer." For maximizers, decision making is never easy.

If a maximizer needs a new computer, for example, they might open up a spreadsheet, and find all the computers on the market, and start listing things like price, processor speed, hard drive capacity. They’re gonna watch a bunch of YouTube videos on a bunch of different YouTube channels. They’ll weigh everything that might be important before making their final choice.

A satisficer is the kind of person who says, "y'know, I just need something that I can watch YouTube videos on," and they get the first thing that fits that description. In other words, they go with the first thing that satisfies their requirements. It shouldn’t come as a shock that satisficers tend to spend money more impulsively, because they make purchases more quickly than maximizers.

But the funny thing is, there's lots of research that suggests that maximizers aren't as happy with what they buy, and they regret their purchases more. It's like, once they put so much thought into that mental spreadsheet of all their options, they have trouble leaving it behind. So making your spending decisions quickly might mean you spend more than you intended, but it isn't all bad.

In the end, whether you’re a spendthrift or a tightwad, or a maximizer or a satisficer, there are some things that you can do if you want to check your impulsive spending. If the pain of paying matters to you, you can try ditching the credit cards and paying in cash. Lots of studies show that using cash slows down spending because it forces you to literally watch the money as it’s in your hand and then not anymore.

Or, if you see something you think you want, consider waiting before you actually buy it. Understanding that having your hands on something sets off that feel-good reward excitement in your brain might help you resist the urge. Then you can see if you're still thinking about it later on.

This has been SciShow Psychology. If you want to learn more about how companies try to hack your brain to maximize sales, you can check out our video on how ads are designed to persuade you. [OUTRO ♪].