Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center Black Friday and the whole holiday season are designed to tap into a very ancient part of our brains. What happens to our brain when we shop during the holidays?
NPR logo

Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/366729888/366729891" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center

Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/366729888/366729891" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

With the economy picking up steam, this Thanksgiving week is expected to be better for shop owners and retailers compared to last year's holiday. The turkey is barely defrosted, but retailers are ready to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This just in. Macy's is giving away a million dollars...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Black Friday is here early...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Five p.m. with amazing four-hour deals on the hottest toys...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We're cooking up big doorbusters...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This Thursday at 8 p.m. get all...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I got up at 3 a.m. for Black Friday, but I saved hundreds...

GREENE: Wow, are you dizzy yet? Well, it turns out those ads and also the holiday season itself are tapping into a very primitive part of our brains. NPR's Sonari Glinton explains.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Here's a cold, hard fact about the holiday shopping season around Thanksgiving. It's delivered to us by Sucharita Mulpuru. She's a retail analyst with Forrester Research.

SUCHARITA MULPURU: Black Friday is a big shopping day, but in the rank order it's probably sixth, seventh on the list, but it's definitely not number one.

GLINTON: If Black Friday is not the best day sales-wise for store owners - OK, what about consumers?

MULPURU: There is more of a sport to Black Friday shopping, and people expect some deal. But they aren't likely to get the best deal on a particular item because the best deal may have already happened six months ago.

GLINTON: Overall, the best holiday deals don't happen on Black Friday. They usually happen right before Christmas and after. Analysts have been saying that to shoppers for years, and it's something we should all know. But we still go out. That raises an important question.

CAMELIA KUHNEN: So why do people do this?

GLINTON: The woman with the answer is Camelia Kuhnen. She's a behavioral economist at the University of North Carolina.

KUHNEN: I think it's because of the role that emotions, especially positive emotions like excitement, play on people's decision-making process.

GLINTON: OK, folks, we're about to get deep, so lock in. Kuhnen says our financial decisions are governed essentially by two centers in our brain. One is the fear-anxiety center. That's the part of our brain that reacts to panics or makes us run away from danger. The other is the reward center. Kuhnen says this part is triggered when we're happy. She says there's run-of-the-mill happy...

KUHNEN: And then there's happy-excited, happy-aroused, happy-frenzied. OK? And it's really that happy-frenzied state that is driven by a lot of activation in this brain reward center. It's when you feel the impetus to sort of go for it.

GLINTON: That go-for-it impulse is what makes the holiday season run. Every single part of the holidays - the music, the food, for some of us the family - all go to get us excited and to activate that primitive part of our brain.

KUHNEN: And when that happens, people end up making certain choices that are quite interesting. So they tend to take on more financial risk. They tend to prefer much more strongly immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards. And they tend to be much more interested in purchasing a good that's showed to them.

GLINTON: More interested in purchasing a good that's shown to them? Sound like those Black Friday ads to you? Meanwhile, the analysts say retailers know about this ancient part of our brain, and they've worked on it for centuries. The problem is, in the age of the internet, whether they can keep the pace.

HOWARD DAVIDOWITZ: What's going on, I think, convenience is a huge thing to the consumer.

GLINTON: Howard Davidowitz is a retail analyst. He says right now the Internet gives consumers the upper hand. The fight amongst retailers is who can have the most convenient option for customers.

DAVIDOWITZ: So that everybody - everybody is trying to capitalize on that. The consumer wants free shipping, and they want it right away, period.

GLINTON: And if you don't give that to them...

DAVIDOWITZ: You got a problem 'cause your competitor will.

GLINTON: It's not about which store or brand has the keys to our brain. It's about which retailers can get in line first. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.