Editor’s Note: Catherine Franssen is a professor of psychology and director of neurostudies at Longwood University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

As I sit here in my home office surrounded by shopping bags and Amazon boxes, not quite sure of what’s here and fairly confident that I haven’t actually bought gifts for everyone on my list, I wonder how it all went awry. I’m a neuroscientist who has a pretty good understanding of the tricks that retailers play to get us to spend money, and yet I’m just as susceptible as everyone else! Why do our brains fall for these tricks and why do we overspend during the holidays?

Retailers have been inventing new gimmicks to get you into their stores and purchasing their wares since there have been items to purchase. Even as we find new strategies to resist, neuroscientists are employed at marketing agencies across the country to best figure out what is going through a consumer’s brain at each point in the decision process. Here’s how they do it:


Consumers get sucked into overspending due to a phenomenon that economists call “loss aversion.” Fear is a primary motivator in our purchasing decisions. We have a fear of missing the really good deal or having to pay more for the same thing and lose money.

Our brains have something called the amygdala, which is our emotional and primary fear center. Normally, the prefronta