By: Leila Doolittle DC

Holiday season is the busiest shopping season of the year. Everywhere you look, stores are trying to grab your attention with enticing deals and alluring merchandise. Many people report that they experience a high when shopping. There is a term that has been gaining great popularity recently, “retail therapy.” What causes us to feel so good when we are shopping?

It may have to do with the fact that it stimulates the release of Dopamine. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behavior. The anticipation of most types of rewards increase the level of dopamine in the brain. It has an impact on our moods, and is activated when you experience something new, exciting or challenging, or when something brings you pleasure. This could range from eating something tasty during holiday dinner to winning a competitive game or scoring some great items during a big sale However, scientists have shown that there are greater releases in dopamine in most individuals when purchasing items as gifts for another or in giving to a charity than when solely purchasing for their own gains.


Why is it harder to turn away from an item when it has a great sale for 30% off? What happens during the mad rushes of Black Friday Sales? Why is it harder for your brain to reason and responsibly decide against something when you feel the pressure of a big sale going on? You don’t even have to be diagnosed as a shopaholic to experience a rush while shopping during a big sale. That’s why even the casual shopper finds it challenging to exercise self-control at the cash register during Black Friday or holiday season sales.

What happens in the decision-making process as we decide if we should purchase those items that we may only want, not necessarily need? In an illuminating 2007 study, neuroscientists scanned people’s brains as they considered a range of products and noted, first, that a region called the nucleus accumbens is one of the pleasure centers of the brain and showed more activity. That’s to be expected, but here’s where things get interesting. When the study volunteers were given prices for the items, the part of their prefrontal cortex associated with executive functioning, particularly decision-making, lit up, as did the insula, an area implicated in processing pain. Subjects with the busiest insulas were typically the ones who would pass up the purchase. There are times when the pain of parting with your hard-earned cash outweighs the pleasure of new stuff.

When you see sales items while shopping, it triggers a sensation of instant gratification. We feel like we are ‘wining’ something. When we are shopping and see sales items, we typically make purchasing decisions quickly, without much rational thought. During a sale, the body’s autonomic nervous system creates a heightened response in the body, making it more difficult to control your impulse to buy an attractive item because your brain is switched into a competitive mode. This occurs due to fear of missing out on a purchase and saving the money that is reduced due to the sale. If you don’t purchase that item with the large price drop during this sale, you feel that you will be losing a good deal. It is easy for us to override the part of our brain that is the responsible voice attempting to help us make healthy financial decisions.


For some people, the immediate gratification of shopping more often than not outweighs the reckoning of suffering. A new area of psychological research focuses on shopping addiction, where excessive shopping turns into a compulsion. Similar to other forms of addiction, some shopaholics develop a tolerance, so that a larger dose is required to get the same effect. These individuals also have dopamine receptors that lead them to crave another hit. Studies have shown that those who meet the criteria for shopping addiction were also more likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety. It is best for those with shopping addiction to do cognitive therapy and to ensure that they are intaking the proper nutrients to support the dopaminergic system.