London, Dec. 11: The feeling will be familiar to millions at this time of year: a surge of excitement as they find that must-have item in shops, followed by a sickening sense of let-down shortly afterwards. It may be some relief to discover that scientists know why it happens and can now provide some pointers to avoiding it.
The feeling is caused by the release of a specific chemical in the brain, studies have found. Dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure, is released in waves as shoppers first see a product and then consider buying it.
But the research shows that it is the anticipation rather than the buying that discharges dopamine and drives the process.
The effect of the naturally produced chemical lasts only a short time and can leave the shopper feeling let down when brain chemistry returns to normal.
Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, Georgia in the US and author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfilment, said: “Dopamine is all about the hunt and the anticipation. It is released as you conjure... the thought of this purchase and anticipate how it will look and how you will use it.”
Laboratory experiments revealed that the chemical rose sharply in rats’ brains when they explored new sections in their cages ' comparable to finding a new store.
Researchers also replicated the human experience of discovering a new product by using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners.
As a shopper makes a purchase, levels of dopamine flowing between nerve cells in the brain increase significantly. But once the product is bought, the chemical balance normalises very sharply.
The result is often a feeling of regret ' known as “buyer’s remorse” in the retail world ' soon after experiencing a shopping high.
Dr Berns, a pioneer in the new field of neuro-economics, in which scientists look at how we take competitive decisions, added: “The dopamine motivates you to seal the deal, but it only hangs around for a very short time ' minutes or even seconds.”
Other researchers are using EEG (electroencephalogram) monitors to study shopping habits. Neuroco, a London consulting firm, uses portable monitors strapped to shoppers to produce “brain maps”.
These show a marked difference in the brain patterns of someone just browsing, compared with a shopper about to make a purchase.
Felix Economakis, a psychologist, said: “Dopamine is released whenever it enhances a person’s survival. If a woman thinks to herself, ‘If I buy this dress my friends are going to love it and my status will increase,’ then she... believes it is helping her survival. That is why dopamine is released.”
Ruth Engs, studying compulsive shopping in the US, has some tips to control spending.
• Draw up a shopping list and stick to it.
• Minimise credit-card use.
• Go window-shopping for ideas after stores have closed. Go home and think about it.
• Avoid stores when visiting friends or relatives. Shopping in new locations can lead to greater dopamine surges.