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Impulse Control Disorders

The Holiday Shopping Mind

Navigating the psychology of impulsive and compulsive buying.

Key points

  • The shopping environment pushes consumers to succumb to spontaneous purchases.
  • Impulsive buying is driven by a sudden, irresistible urge to buy.
  • Compulsive buying is a disorder driven by planned urges to shop in response to negative emotions.

As the end of the year approaches, impulse buying takes on a distinctive flavor, fueled by holiday festivities and year-end sales. Consumers often find themselves succumbing to spontaneous purchases as they experience the vibrant displays and tempting discounts that mark the holiday season. They often end up buying gifts, decorations, or items for themselves without thorough planning. Retailers strategically capitalize on this time of the year, creating an environment that encourages spur-of-the-moment purchases. While these impulsive purchases can add joy and excitement to the holiday season, they may also lead to post-holiday financial stress.

Source: Max Fischer / Pexels
Source: Max Fischer / Pexels

While impulse buying is exacerbated during the holiday season, it is not restricted to it. Recent studies show that the average U.S. consumer makes 2 to 3 impulse buys per week, amounting to $5,400 annually. These decisions often lead to credit debt, a significant issue for many American families.

Understanding Impulse Buying

Impulsive buying is driven by a sudden, irresistible urge to buy. It involves a series of stages: antecedents, triggers, act of buying, and post-purchase. Antecedents shape a person's predisposition to impulsive behavior. Triggers include temporal proximity and external cues. The act of buying involves compromised information processing, leading to a strong automatic and emotional reaction. Post-purchase, individuals may experience regret, guilt, or satisfaction, reinforcing the likelihood of future impulsive buying.

Impulse buying traits vary in intensity across individuals. Impulsive buyers seek novelty, variety, and surprise, using shopping to improve mood and gain emotional support through social interactions. Self-regulation is crucial in managing impulse buying, but dysfunction can occur when short-term satisfaction overrides long-term goals. The shopping environment, both physical and online, plays a significant role in influencing impulse buying behavior, creating positive or negative affect.

While individuals with lower incomes may engage in immediate, indulgent buying, those with disposable income are also prone to impulse buying. Shopping with peers may increase impulse buying, while family tends to decrease the urge. Societal factors, including advertising and easy credit, contribute to impulsive buying behavior.

Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Understanding Compulsive Buying

While compulsive buying resembles impulsive buying, it is a psychological disorder involving a habitual, planned and uncontrollable urge to shop, often in response to negative events or emotions. It is associated with compromised self-perception, perfectionism, and novelty seeking. Compulsive buyers often suffer from depression and eating disorders. Environmental factors, such as stress and anxiety related to financial issues, contribute to compulsive buying behavior. Postmodern consumer societies, advertising, online retail, and easy credit facilities create an atmosphere conducive to compulsive buying.

The level of self-control distinguishes impulse from compulsive buying. Impulse buyers possess relatively higher self-control, making occasional spontaneous purchases. However, consistent impulsive behavior can lead to a loss of self-control and the development of compulsive buying tendencies. Consumer anxiety plays a key role in the relationship between the two.

While behavioral disorders like compulsive buying can be treated through cognitive-behavioral therapy, addressing impulsive buying requires awareness campaigns and responsible retail practices. Just as in other addictive behaviors, responsible buying campaigns can help curb the negative impacts of impulsive buying, benefiting both retailers and consumers. Recognizing the psychological underpinnings of these behaviors is the first step toward creating a healthier and more informed consumer culture.

So, as you navigate through this year's shopping temptations, take a moment to reflect on the potential consequences of your purchases. Consider the financial impact and the potential stress they may bring. Before making impulsive decisions, ask yourself whether the items are truly necessary. Alternatively, allow yourself the freedom to explore multiple stores before settling on a purchase, ensuring a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to your shopping experience.


Sacha Bazzal and Isabelle Brocas, Impulsive and Compulsive Buying Behaviors: Differences and Similarities, LABEL reports, December 2020.

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