Why your brain can’t resist impulse buying

Why your brain can’t resist impulse buying

We’re all guilty of grabbing the odd chocolate bar, sweet treat or sticky bun whilst out shopping. But why is it so difficult to resist those tempting treats?

Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the sellers of sweet treats, our old brain is hardwired to hunt and gather. If it sees something it wants, it does all it can to get that thing and get it immediately.

Why do we succumb to 'Impulse Buying'?

Part of the issue is that you have 2 different brain systems controlling your wants, needs and behaviour. The ‘old’ brain, something that has evolved since the dawn of life on earth, and the ‘new’ brain the part that allows us to make more reasoned choices.

The ‘new’ brain on the other hand takes a more measured approach, weighing up pros and cons, considering health, cost etc. But, and here’s the big but: The modern part of the human brain is woefully ill-equipped to control many of the urges of our older, stronger, more established hunter gatherer brain.

Don’t think that impulse purchasing only impacts of smaller add-on items. Even larger more expensive things can be irresistible to our hunter, gatherer brain. Basically, anything that we believe will keep us alive(fight or flight) or help ensure that our genes pass on to the next generation,can and will be bought on a whim. That £500 vacuum cleaner will protect me and my family from germs and possibility of illness or worse. And what about that £100 designer, leather belt. Surely that must help me pass on my genes right? Sorry, but this is how our brains really work.

What can we do to keep temptation at bay?

There are several proven strategies to help us reduce temptations and ultimately keep our money in our purses and wallets! Here are 3 key tips:

1. Think Twice

Our older brain is much, much faster than the new brain. Therefore you need to give sense and reason time to catch up. When you look into your basket and see a bar of chocolate or Dyson vacuum cleaner on top of all the other items, just ask yourself why you bought it and do you really need it. What else is more important to you at that moment? This simple little delaying tactic let you come to a more rational decision as to whether to buy or not.

2. Be Aware

Recognise that there are occasions when retailers try to entice us to buy things (shock, horror). Confectionery adjacent to the queue in the forecourt is sometimes carefully positioned to catch your eye when you aren’t really concentrating. Then there occasions when you see the same items several times in different locations in-store. In this case, repeated exposure can sucker you into becoming more familiar with the item and so liking it more.

3. Pay Cash

This is really powerful and goes against the modern world we have created but as a species, we hate loss, more than we like gain (ratio of approximately 2:1). So, the loss of cash (or potential loss) often outweighs the fight, flight or find a mate related gain: the product.


For the past 30 years, I have analysed shopper and consumer psychology in more than 20 Countries. I have worked for leading retailers and brands, advising them how to make their offering more shopper and consumer friendly. Quite simply, the easier it is for consumers to shop, the more they like the experience.

To quote myself: “We have created a consumer world that is completely at odds with how we have evolved as a species. As a result, shopping is harder than it should be and consumers have become less loyal to brands. Most of us are grateful for all the ways our lives have been made easier. From running water, to the flush toilet and from jungle drums to the iPhone X. It’s time to focus more on the process of attaining more things? Understand people’s deep, psychological needs in the store, browsing online or even queuing for a train. Then go beyond customer service –Let’s focus on delivering genuine customer delight instead.

I have amassed a database of 1,486 specific psychological and behavioural insights that brands and retailers can tap into to make what they offer able to truly delight the shopper and consumer.

All my evidence suggests that retailers and brands who embrace delighting shoppers and consumers become the more preferred choice for more people more often. It really is a win, win opportunity.”

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

If you think there is value in this article then please, please share it, thank you.

Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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