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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 prefrontal cortex controls our emotional reactions to things, and keeps us from acting irrationally by calming down our fears. But an advertiser can distract your prefrontal cortex just by displaying flashy deal signs, encouraging it to do math on how much money you might save now by buying more of something you don’t actually need yet. Like an overworked parent of a toddler, it begins to weaken its resolve and the emotional toddler — or amygdala — begins to drive the decision process.