Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Impulse buying motivation

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Impulse buying:
What motivates impulse buying?


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We have all experienced impulse buying (IB). Maybe you went shopping with a friend, swearing you weren't going to spend any money and then "poof" you own a new top. Or maybe you had actually planned on going shopping, and you ended up buying a few items that weren't on your list. Whatever the context, if you have ever bought something that you did not plan on ahead of time, you have experienced IB. Despite much criticism over its definition, IB is widely characterised as unplanned purchasing behaviour. It is a sudden, powerful urge in a consumer to buy immediately, and occurs when desire for a product outweighs one's ability to resist. Impulsive and compulsive buying are terms that are frequently confused for one another, but represent behaviours that differ in their frequency, cause, outcome and severity (Faber, 2010). IB is more common, such that most people engage in it occasionally. Research suggests that the baseline probability of engaging in IB is 46%, and under the right circumstances this can increase to 93% (Inman, Winer, & Ferraro, 2009). So what are these circumstances? The aim of this chapter is to discuss what motivates IB, which can be influenced by internal (within the individual) and external (outside the individual) factors.

Focus questions
  1. What motivates IB?
  2. What psychological theories explain IB?
  3. How can IB be controlled?

Internal factors[edit]

Research has highlighted several internal factors that contribute to the motivation of IB including: impulse buying tendency (IBT), affect, self-esteem, self-control, values and self-identity.

Impulse buying tendency[edit]

Figure 1. The BAS corresponds with IB

Impulse buying tendency (IBT) refers to tendencies to experience spontaneous and sudden urges to make on-the-spot purchases and to act on these urges without evaluation of the consequences. It demonstrates an individual's tendency to engage in IB, which varies among individuals and is rooted in personality. Those with a higher IBT tend to purchase more on impulse as opposed to those low on this trait (Beatty & Ferrell, 1998). One recent study hypothesised that IBT might be an extension of broader personality patterns, for instance: individuals who never plan in other areas of their life (i.e., work and leisure) might likewise never do so when purchasing products. The results demonstrated that this was the case, and both the impulsive and prudent participants experienced spontaneous desires when confronted with tempting stimuli. However, contrary to the impulsive participants, the prudent participants were able to mobilise avoidance defences, and thus, did not persist in indulging the temptations (Ramanathan & Menon, 2006). Furthermore, Verplanken and Herabadi (2001) demonstrated a strong correlation between IBT and the big five personality traits. IBT correlated positively with extraversion and negatively with conscientiousness.

With a large proportion of our personality stemming from biology, researchers have examined biological explanations for IBT. Gray (1975) was the first to suggest that there are significant differences in impulsivity which are deeply rooted in our biological makeup - the existence of two systems in the brain known as the biopsychological theory of personality. The first is the behavioural activation system (BAS), which responds to cues for reward and regulates approach behaviour. The second is the (BIS) which regulates avoidance behaviour. Each of the two systems vary in sensitivity across individuals. People with a highly reactive BIS are vulnerable to stress and anxiety. People with a highly reactive BAS are prone to impulsivity, and are less able to resist stimuli that trigger approach behaviour (e.g., IB). In relation to Ramanthan and Menon's (2006) study, the prudent participants had a higher reported BIS, whereas the impulsive participants had a higher reported BAS. Furthermore, this may provide a biological explanation as to why some individuals find it difficult to quit their impulsive behaviour (e.g., chronic IB) when confronted with aversive consequences (i.e., debt). Whilst this study demonstrated a small-moderate correlation of .35 between scores on the BAS and IBT, biology does not explain most of the variance.


Figure 2. IB is motivated by affect
Affect (mood) has been identified as a variable that strongly influences IB. Both positive affect and negative affect have been studied with some debate. Beatty and Ferrell (1998) suggested that positive affect increases the felt urge to buy impulsively, whilst negative affect does not. Conversely, a more recent study by Youn and Faber (2000) suggested that both positive and negative affect are potential motivators for IB. In support of this, Verplanken and Sato (2011) conducted a study where participants were given a mood induction task, which stimulated either a negative, positive or neutral mood. At completion, participants were given $5 for their participation, and were provided with the opportunity to use some of this money to purchase food. Half of the products were unhealthy snacks (i.e., ones typically bought on impulse). Participants in the neutral condition spent on average 37% of their money on these unhealthy foods, however those in the negative and positive mood conditions spent 49% and 59% respectively on the unhealthy snacks. The difference between the neutral mood condition compared to the negative and positive mood conditions was statistically significant.  

Positive affect[edit]

IB is often accompanied with positive affect. Individuals who experience positive affect may be pre-disposed to rewarding themselves generously, and to feel as if they have freedom to purchase (Rook & Gardner, 1993). Rook and Gardner (1993) highlighted that 85% of their survey respondence indicated a positive mood would be more conductive to IB than a negative mood. Further, these researchers suggested that certain mood states (the combination of pleasure, excitement and power) might elicit IB in a more or less automatic script like fashion by activating themes related to IB. This can be explained by flow theory, whereby consumers enjoy browsing products and immerse themselves in the process. Positive affect and time distortion keep consumers' attention, and increase the length of their exposure to product stimuli. After internally processing these stimuli, consumers may experience a strong desire and preform IB (Huang, 2015). Moreover, Verplanken and Sato (2011) highlighted that a basic tenant in psychology is that individuals are fundamentally motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and IB may fulfil these hedonistic motives. Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) also suggested that consumers are driven by the hedonistic and aesthetic nature of consuming, and that pleasant feelings or a good memory might be an important goal of IB. This idea relates to operant conditioning, such that IB can be a positive reinforcer to the individuals positive affect. That is, if people have learnt from past experience that IB gives them positive affect, then this will increase IB in future. In addition, Herbadi, Verplanken and Knippen (2009) observed shoppers in a department store which sold common impulse products (e.g., clothes, hobby items). These researchers obtained emotion statements, an assessment of the consumer's IBT and the self-reported impulsiveness of the purchases they had just made. The study revealed the emotional experiences that came with IB: excitement, enthusiasm, feeling an urge and happiness. The occurrence of these emotions correlated strongly with high scores on the IB instrument (.75) and with the reported impulsiveness of the purchase (.63). The study demonstrated that impulsive shoppers experience elevated positive affect at the time of purchase.

Negative affect[edit]

Whilst a majority of the research tends to suggest that IB will come largely from its positive dimension rather than its negative, some research suggests that IB may be the result of one's attempt to relieve depression or cheer oneself up (Sneath, Lacey, & Kennett-Hensel, 2009). In addition, Verplanken, Herabadi, Perry and Silvera (2005) proposed that negative rather than positive affect was the driving force behind more severe cases of IB: purchasing to escape from negative psychological states. Escapism theory can explain how IB may serve as an escape from negative psychological states, whereby individuals use IB as a means of psychological relief. In addition, expectancy-value theory explains how individuals expect that purchasing will increase their happiness, which may motivate them towards IB.

Quotes from impulse buyers
"When I'm depressed I'll go shopping to cheer myself up. And when I'm happy I'll go shopping for fun." (affect)
"You see something and you think I've got to have that, and you buy it." (self-control)
"If I buy the right things, I'd project the right image. I'd feel right about myself." (self-esteem)
(Dittmar & Drury, 2000).


Self-esteem plays an important role in IB motivation. Dittmar (2005) found that frequent impulse shoppers differed from ordinary consumers in several ways: they were motivated to buy in order to bolster their self-image, had lower self-esteem, and they reported greater gaps between how they see themselves (actual self) and how they wish to be seen (ideal self), as depicted in self-discrepancy theory. Further, they held stronger materialistic values, believing that acquiring material goods is a major route towards success, identity and happiness. Moreover, they did more IB and regretted their purchases more. Verplanken, Herabadi, Perry and Silvera (2005) stated that low self-esteem is likely to be particularly powerful source for negative psychological states, which in itself results in IB to cope. Maslow's hierarchy of needs (esteem needs) can be applied to IB motivation. Esteem needs refer to the need of feeling good about oneself. Humans have a desire for status, respect and esteem from others (Maslow, 1943).


IB has been framed as a result of a lack of self-control. When consumers are deciding whether they want to purchase an item or not, they require the use of cognitive resources to guide their behaviour (Baumeister, 2002). According to the limited strength model of self-control, the exertion of self-control appears to depend on a limited resource. Just as a muscle gets tired from exertion, acts of self-control cause short-term impairments (ego depletion) in subsequent self-control, even on unrelated tasks. Desire, environmental stimuli or continual decision making can erode an individuals stamina, and if self-control is depleted, various type of impulsive behaviours are demonstrated including IB (Shiv & Fedorikihin, 1999). Acts of self-control in relation to IB may consist of actions such as thinking about spending money, walking away from the product, or down-regulating emotions. However, the task of exerting self-control may fail. Baumeister (2002) suggested three reasons why this may occur. The first may be a conflict of goals (cognitive dissonance) for instance: saving money versus satisfying the desire to possess an item. Secondly, self-control may break down when people stop monitoring their behaviour. Thirdly, effective self-control requires a certain amount of mental resources, and sometimes people lack these resources (i.e., due to mental exhaustion). Furthermore, Vohs and Faber (2007) had participants conduct a task that required either no or a certain amount of self-control (e.g., avoiding reading words on a screen), which was then followed by a task that assessed their tendency to impulse buy. It was found that when participants had exerted self-control, they were less able to resist IB, and spent more money compared to participants who did not exert self-control in the first task. Such experiments demonstrate that as self-control is exercised, people lose some of their capacity for future self-control. And, as people lose their capacity for self-control, they become increasingly likely to fall prey to impulsive desires (Baumeister, 2002). Confirming these findings, Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) suggested that IB may signify more IB, having "fallen off the wagon". This suggests a form of momentum in which additional urges are acted upon more quickly than previous urges.

Values and self-identity[edit]

IB may stem from held values or self-identities. Materialistic values are deeply ingrained drivers of IB motives, such that products may serve purposes other than utilitarian or hedonistic goals; they may have symbolic meaning (Dittmar, Long, & Bond, 2007). For example, products may symbolise lifestyle, social groups, status, class, values, religious identities or political positions. Buying such products may be an act of reaching out to what these symbols stand for (Verplanken & Sato, 2011). Furthermore, Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) proposed a theory of symbolic self-completion which suggests that individuals need to define and confirm their self-identity, and do so through 'symbols of completion' (i.e., symbols that represent a particular identity, whereby purchases may be one way to do so). This motivation to affirm one's self definition becomes important when individuals feel their self-identity is being compromised. Verplanken and Holland (2002) demonstrated that participants who had previously indicated that environmental values were part of their self-description and subsequently were made to act contrary to these values, were more motivated to choose an environmentally friendly product later in the experiment. It was theorised that IB may therefore operate to signify or express an aspect of a person's self-identity, due to products symbolising a group or lifestyle. As social-identity theory suggests, our self-concept consists of multiple identities, and IB products may serve as different symbols of self-completion (Verplanken, Trafimow, Khusid, Holland, & Steenjes, 2009).



Which provides a biological explanation for IB?

Highly reactive BIS
Highly reactive BAS
Highly reactive BIS and BAS
Enlarged amygdala


Which motivates IB?

Positive and negative affect
Positive affect
Negative affect

External factors[edit]

Research has highlighted a few external factors that contribute to the motivation of IB including situational and socio-demographic characteristics.

Situational characteristics[edit]

Figure 4. Time is positively correlated with IB

Several situational characteristics have been highlighted as motivators for IB. Firstly, Iyer (1989) hypothesised that IB was a function of time pressure. Results demonstrated that the lower the time pressure, the higher the IB. In addition, the more time spent in store prior to seeing an impulse item, the higher one's IB, whereby in-store browsing appears to be positively affected by one's time availability and IBT (Beatty & Ferrell, 1988). Furthermore, these researchers found a relationship between availability of financial resources and IB, such that the availability of money produced positive affect, and consequently increased IB. In addition, the atmospherics of a store are important in attracting consumers to stay in longer. When inside, consumers confront many marketing stimuli that are used to encourage IB (i.e., sales promotions, aisle displays) (Abratt & Goodey, 1990). Kaur and Singh (2007) studied the IB behaviour of youths and found that sensory stimulants such as music, odour, or feel of the products play an important role in shaping the shopping experience, and could set off IB. Omar and Kent (2001) found that availability of certain products, clean ambience, spacious formats and anonymity are some of the reasons that could increase IB at airport retailers. In addition, credit cards and its incentives for extra shopping provide an opportunity for shoppers to make frequent visits to retail outlets which may result in increased IB.

Mattila and Wirtz (2008) highlighted that social factors influence IB, such that employee friendliness was positively associated with IB. Praise from others, such as a sales person or friends during a shopping trip may increase the chances of IB (Yu & Bastin, 2010). Additionally, Lou (2005) investigated the influence of shopping with others on IB, and revealed that the presence of peers increased the urge of IB whereas the presence of family decreased it. Rook's (1987) seminal works also suggested that anonymity might encourage IB such that shoppers tend to try on new things when wrapped in the autonomy of a self-service environment. This idea relates to self-determination theory (SDT), whereby autonomy is highlighted as the desire to be the casual agent of ones own life. SDT suggests that situations that allow autonomy increase intrinsic motivation. Thus, when individuals are left to browse products on their own, they may feel more intrinsically motivated, and thus, may be more likely to engage in IB. SDT has found that external factors such as deadlines (like restricted time as discussed above) decreases intrinsic motivation (Amabile, DeJong, & Leppe, 1976). Hence, this may provide an explanation as to why individuals are less likely to impulse purchase when feeling rushed.

Socio-demographic characteristics[edit]

Particular socio-demographic characteristics have been frequently associated with IB. Kacen and Lee (2002) argued that in a cultural context, the theory of individualism and collectivism gives important insights about consumers IB. Consumers from collectivist cultures are found to engage themselves in less IB than individualistic consumers (individuals from collectivist cultures are more dependent in self-concept, whereas individualistic cultures are more independent). In addition, Dittmar, Beattie and Friese (1995) explained IB with social constructionist theory and investigated whether males and females purchased different categories of products impulsively. The study revealed that men tended to impulsively buy instrumental and leisure items, whilst women tended to purchase symbolic and self-expressive goods (usually concerned with appearance). It has also been suggested that adolescents and young adults are more susceptible to interpersonal influence (peer pressure) manifested in greater IB tendencies (Luo, 2005). In order to avoid negative evaluation from peers, socially anxious youths would exhibit greater IB (Lin & Chuang, 2005). Such research can be explained by Maslow's hierarchy of needs (belonging needs), such as social acceptability. Collectively, youths tend to dress accordingly to fashion and must have the latest technology, and it is due to this human need for belonging that we aspire to belong to our peer group (Maslow, 1943).

Controlling impulse buying[edit]

Based on the premise that IB is due to a failure of self-regulation, it has been suggested that individuals could employ self-regulation strategies to reduce their IB. Vohs et al. (2008) highlighted four strategies:

  1. Set goals that are unambiguous, realistic and consistent with personal standards
  2. Be motivated to attain the goal
  3. Keeping standards in mind, plan and monitor progress
  4. Use willpower and self-control to stay focused and driven toward the goal

Furthermore, Inman, Winer and Ferraro (2009) suggested strategies such as shopping with a list, paying with cash instead of card, reducing time spent in the store, reducing the number of aisles visited, and decreasing the amount of shopping trips for groceries throughout the week (minimising browsing time). Verplanken and Sato (2011) also highlighted that making individuals aware of their thought processes surrounding IB through increased self-regulation may reduce this behaviour.

Case study

Leona was in the habit of buying something as soon as she got paid, and often dipped into her savings to treat herself at the shops. When Leona got an unexpected large phone bill, she didn't have enough savings to cover it and had to sell some of her purchases to pay the bill on time. After that, Leona made a commitment not to shop on payday, and switched to using cash instead of a card, so she could keep track of what she spent.



In summary, IB is a complicated phenomenon when applied to motivation. The chapter aimed to broadly answer the question of what motivates IB and the simple answer to this question is: there are many potential motivators of IB including internal factors: IBT, affect, self-esteem, self-control, values and self-identity and external factors: situational and socio-demographic characteristics. A variety of psychological theories have been applied to explain IB motivation throughout including: the bio-psychological theory of personality, flow theory, operant conditioning, escapism theory, expectancy-value theory, self-discrepancy theory, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the limited strength model of self-control, symbolic self-completion theory, social identity theory, self-determination theory, individualism and collectivism and social constructionist theory. Controlling IB has been outlined as a failure to self-regulate, and tips have been provided on how to reduce more chronic cases of IB. One major criticism of the research presented is that it is largely from individualistic (westernised) cultures, which limits the scope in terms of external validity. Therefore, future research needs to investigate IB in collectivist cultures.

This chapter provides an overview of several IB motives, it does not cover every possible reason. Alternatively, it highlights the most important research.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]