The Psychology Behind Online Shopping: Why It’s Addictive

OOnline shopping is more than just a hobby for those who enjoy walking past the largest shopping mall in the world: the Internet. It is also a sport.

How else to explain Monica Corcoran Harel’s reaction to the news that there’s a quick sale at one of her favorite online stores? “I am very, very excited and extremely competitive,” she said, hitting refresh several times to get the best deal. If a family member happens to walk into the room while she’s on the move on her computer, “I’m like”, discount fast! I have a flash sale! ‘” In other words: do not disturb.

Corcoran Harel, 53, lives in the Los Angeles area and runs Pretty Ripe, a lifestyle newsletter for women over 40, who has shopped online for years. She loves the ability to visit dozens of stores at once, compare prices before clicking “buy now” and the promise of fast delivery, all without ever leaving the house. “Online shopping is more than just bingeing,” she says. “I’m probably partly responsible for the demise of brick-and-mortar stores.”

But what exactly makes these orders feel so good? Experts explain the psychology behind shopping online — plus tips on how to show restraint if your virtual cart overflows.

Online shopping increases during the pandemic

Online shopping transformed from novelty to normal years ago: Amazon launched almost three decades ago, in 1995, as an online bookseller and now reports that customers buy around 7,400 products per minute from sellers in the United States. But the pandemic has changed consumer habits in favor of buying even basic necessities like toilet paper online. Follow Annual retail trade surveye-commerce sales grew by $244 billion — or 43% — in 2020, jumping from $571 billion in 2019 to $815 billion in 2020.

That increase was at least partly driven by a desire to avoid indoor locations. But experts say it can also be linked to self-soothing behaviors. Research has long suggested that retail therapy can indeed be treated. One Research published in Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2014for example, shows that making purchases makes people feel happier immediately — and also helps combat lingering sadness. The study authors speculate one reason is that making purchasing decisions provides a sense of personal control and autonomy.

Another study, published year Psychology & Marketing In 2011found that going shopping resulted in a “long-term positive effect on mood” and was not associated with feelings of regret or guilt about spontaneous purchases.

Jorge Barraza, program director and assistant professor of the online applied psychology program at the University of Southern California, says shopping is, in many ways, driven by emotions. “When we are sad, when we are stressed, we are more likely to engage in this type of behavior,” he says. In some cases, he notes, the joy of a fancy new dress or trigger devices may not last, especially if buyers know they’re mismanaging their money. “That mood boost may be temporary, if you’re spending more than you can afford, but at least temporarily it seems to restore a sense of control and ease any remaining sadness. remnants that people may encounter.”

Why online shopping makes people so happy

In many ways, online shopping pushes the joy of shopping in person to another, almost overwhelming stratosphere. “It is very powerful psychologically,” says Joshua Klapow, a psychologist and assistant professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (He’s also the new owner of three inflatable swimming pools, a collapsible whisk, two jars of almond butter, and 50 pounds of bird seed, all of which he ordered online.)

Compared to shopping in person, “it’s a much more satisfying experience overall, because of fewer conflicts, fewer barriers, less behavioral costs, more specificity, and more choice.” “, I said. Plus, “the shopping is a perfect fit for us. We can shop fast or slow.”

Part of why online shopping is so appealing is convenience. When it comes to shopping in person, Klapow points out, we have to walk or drive or figure out some other way to get there, and then we have to strut across aisle after aisle to locate it. what we are looking for. Even at stores that offer contactless payments, it takes effort to make a transaction: swipe your credit card or Apple Pay on your phone, for example. Then a shopper needs to return home. “For many people, these microscopic inconveniences only begin to disappear at the overall perceived value of the purchase,” he said.

In addition to being easier, online shopping offers satisfaction in terms of accuracy. If Klapow goes to a big box store, he may not find the shirt he’s looking for in the right size or color. If he’s shopping online, he’s more likely to get exactly what he wants with much less hassle.

Doing so is a form instant gratificationJoseph Kable, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says we all crave. “This is a common trend among people and is shared across much of the animal world,” he said. “Humans and other animals tend to have less future outcomes than immediate results. This means we want to have the good as soon as possible, and delay the bad as far as possible into the future.”

Interestingly, online shopping is also associated with another, more delayed type of satisfaction: anticipating order arrival. Waiting for something fun is “like every day Christmas,” says Klapow, like the ability to track a package with Santa’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve, for example.

That resonates with Corcoran Harel, who works from home and likes to look out the window to see if a package has arrived. “I am wary about taking my packages,” she said. “I’m excited to open it up and try something out — and the knowledge that you can give something back so easily just makes it better.”

What to do if you think you have a problem

Researchers define compulsive buying as “preoccupation with buying and shopping, frequent or excessive buying impulses that are experienced as irresistible and pointless.” There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether your online shopping habits matter, but in general, you should ask yourself whether shopping affects quality, says Barraza. your life quality or not.

Compulsive buying disorder (or any other type of shopping addiction) is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, it has been recognized for over a century: German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin is credited with being the first to describe the disorder in 1915, calling it “oniomania” — the Greek word “onios” means “for sale” and “mania” means “crazy.” As the author of a 2012 article In Advances in Psychiatric TreatmentWithout pointing out that, experts continue to debate whether shopping addiction is “a valid mental illness or a recreational activity that individuals use to manage emotions or express their identity.” self”.

In one Research published in 2014 inside Journal of Behavioral Addictionresearchers have presented several factors that can cause someone to develop an online shopping addiction, including low self-esteem, low self-control, negative emotional states, hidden tendencies Internet names and diets include exposure to many pop-up graphics and messages.

Another research paperpublished in 2017 in Borders in Psychology, focused on developing a scale that can measure online shopping addiction. According to the authors, six factors are required to meet the definition of addictive behavior, including enjoyment (meaning that online shopping will be the most important activity in a person’s life); mood swings, like feeling flustered after placing an order; conflict, perhaps with family members; and relapse, or resume behavior after trying to stop. In those cases, an online shopaholic could benefit from working with a professional and undergo cognitive behavioral therapyKlapow said.

Concerns about shopping addiction and overspending are especially relevant today, because inflationary peaked in the United States in four decades. Klapow recommends focusing on making intentional decisions about what to buy. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I want this, so I’ll get it,’ but we need to be careful that we don’t call all our needs ‘my wants’,” he said.

Here are some tips if you’re worried about overspending online:

Before checkout, review each item in your online shopping cart and ask yourself: “Do I want this or do I need it?” Klapow instructs his clients to do this awareness exercise, and it can be helpful, he says. “It forces you to look in the mirror and you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll put away or save for later use.”

Attach a helpful Post-it note to your desktop. This is one of Klapow’s favorite environmental tweaks to combat the sirens of e-commerce. Write your monthly budget in large letters on sticky notes or notices instructing you to check the total costs before clicking “buy now”. Visual prompts can help motivate you as you get caught up in the excitement of a new discovery.

Do not store your credit card information online. Many people store information for multiple credit cards online, boosting the likelihood of a purchase. Ideally, you wouldn’t store even a single card, Klapow says – “not from a safety standpoint, but from an impulse standpoint.” Having to manually enter your payment details takes an extra minute to breathe and possibly re-evaluate the purchase.

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