What happens to our brains when we shop online?

This is what actually happens to your brain when you shop online

With more of us than ever before shopping online, we asked an expert to unpack the psychology behind our online shopping splurges, and why it’s so hard to break the retail therapy-shaped habit of a lifetime. 

In the midst of a particularly bad bout of lockdown ennui last December, I logged onto Net-a-Porter and spent an eye-watering amount of money on a pair of boots, some trousers and a shirt, none of which I could afford, but all of which I hastily added to my basket before running out of the virtual shop (see: closing the window) in a bid to pretend it never happened.

This wasn’t the first time such a situation had occurred. Nor would it be the last. In fact, it became a vicious cycle: I would feel sad, locked in a spiral of living my life within the same four walls of my boxy basement flat; I would seek a dopamine hit which, for me, comes by way of fashion expenditure, and spend money I didn’t have on things I didn’t need.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. In March 2020 – the month in which the UK went into its first lockdown – 40% of UK shoppers said they were shopping more online compared to before the pandemic. Fast forward to February 2021, and that figure stood at a colossal 75%, according to Statista.   

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So what, exactly, is behind the allure of online shopping? What is the chemical reaction that happens in our brains, causing us to go weak the knees for new-season shoes and shirts and skirts?

Online shopping, like other things we know aren’t necessarily good for us, like eating sugary foods or gambling, is driven by our reward centres, which are located in the centre of our brains and are “responsible for driving our behaviour towards pleasurable stimuli,” says Dr. Dion Terrelonge, a fashion psychologist.

Dr. Terrelonge notes that the visuals we consume when on shopping websites are so pleasurable in fact “that our reward systems will actively drive us towards them, because engaging with them feels good, and will discourage us from engaging with anything unpleasurable that we might find difficult or effortful particularly as a negative thing.” The negative thing, in this case, being our bank balances. 

Dr. Dion Terrelonge
Dr. Dion Terrelonge

It’s the repetition of this flirtation with our reward systems that over time form habits which, in turn, become toxic relationships it can be hard to extricate ourselves from.

“When we think about fast fashion – we see clothes on size 0 models who are all towering at six foot or more, and although we know that the piece might not look like that on us, we become more interested in getting that hit of pleasure from scrolling,” Dr. Terrelonge explains. “Dopamine – which is also known as the ‘go get it’ chemical – is released when we find the exact piece we’ve seen on a model that looks nothing like us, which is compounded by the fact that we can have it the next day. It’s instant gratification.”

The misconception about dopamine in the context of online shopping, which is to say the thrill-seeking that is hunting down a piece you’ve had earmarked in your brain for aeons, is that it drives us “to want things and to seek those things out”, but not necessarily because of your liking for it, more because of the animalistic cocktail of chemicals that react within your body to hunt for what you like. In turn, this creates pleasure when you find it. 

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Dr. Terrelonge is clear: “It’s why so many people can have wardrobes packed full of clothes, but still stare at them every day while moaning about having no clothes.”

The key to breaking the shopping habit of a lifetime? Dr. Terrelonge believes it lies in “consciously engaging” in everything we do. Instead of just reaching for a website or social media, think about what you’re doing and what you want to achieve from it.

“So many of our habits online have become unconscious that we almost dissociate when we’re online shopping and it’s about rewiring our brains to become active participants in what we’re doing,” she explains. “Before you log onto a website, ask yourself what you actually need, what you need it for and what your budget is. By making a note of these questions, you’re instantly being active rather than passive, which will help.” 

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A few fashion insider tips when it comes to online shopping: firstly, bookmark the piece you like for one month before buying and if you still love it after a month, then it may well be worth investing in; and secondly, to consider the piece’s cost per wear, which has recently become cemented as a fashion buzz-phrase. Will you wear the item as many times as the pounds you paid for it? That £345 coat may well be worth the splurge if you will wear it 345 times over the course of your lifetime; similarly, that £100 statement blouse, which can be dressed up or down, may not be the impulse purchase you thought if you’ll wear it 100 times. The value in clothes lies not in our ability to virtually check out with them in our baskets (in turn hurting the lining of our bank balances) but in our ability to be conscious buyers who engage with the act of dressing, rather than mindless spending.

Even better, should the itch to shop peak in cadence, opt for secondhand splurging instead which, data has shown, is more satisfying. A recent study by Vinted found that 87% of shoppers say that buying something secondhand is satisfying, with over half of British them also stating that happiness or positivity were the core reasons behind their passion for pre-loved.

Dr. Terrelonge concedes: “The pandemic has been hard for everybody in different ways, and while some people have used shopping as a way of bolstering their self-esteem, being conscious about what you’re actually buying will help you get more longevity out of it, which will give you more long-term positive emotions about it rather than just a short-term hit. It’s a win-win.” 

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Images: courtesy of Getty.