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There are two kinds of people: the ones who live for the hunt, and the ones who prefer to use Seamless.

Yours truly is one of the latter. I don’t get my kicks sifting through mountains of clothes, and I’d rather pay full price for something I love than waste a few hours hunting down deals for the same product.

But perhaps I’m missing out on the rush people get from scoring a bargain. You know the ones: saving cash makes their day, and they aren’t afraid to let you know it. Why is that? I decided to dig a bit deeper to see what it means.

‘A Pop of Dopamine’

For some people, scoring a bargain is like getting “pop of dopamine,” Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy,” said. The neurotransmitters that fire during eating, sex and/or gambling also tend to go off when that person saves big. It’s a high so intoxicating that they want it all over again. “We kind of program ourselves to do things over and over again when we feel that psychological rush,” Yarrow explained.

But what makes a deal so irresistible?

“Most people recognize that when it comes to deals, they’re limited,” Yarrow said. “There’s a few left, it’s a clearance, they’ve been reduced and it’s the last one.” That makes the deal feel unique. And when someone finds a deal, not only do they feel like they’re getting something of value, “it contributes to their self-esteem in a way that they feel that they’ve done something special,” she added. There’s a sense of mastery and even of power. “‘I snagged that, and nobody else did,” she said, imitating a euphoric deal hunter. “Or ‘I combined this coupon with that weekend sale. Aren’t I the best shopper ever?’ It’s more than just the product, it’s really associated with self-esteem.”

Retail Therapy That Works 

There’s another side to the bargain-hunting coin, however, that pertains to retail therapy. Widely derided as a wasteful and poor coping mechanism, retail therapy may actually trigger pleasurable chemicals as well. In fact, according to Scott Rick, associate professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who’s studied the subject, when we feel sad (i.e., out of control due to external factors) retail therapy is just the ticket.

“The choices we make when shopping can make us feel more in control, and that helps us when we’re feeling sad,” according to Rick, who tested the thesis for his paper, “The Benefits of Retail Therapy,” using fake stores and simulation sites.

“We investigated shopping because it is kind of a natural response to sadness,” he added. “It’s been shown to increase people’s willingness to pay, and we found it actually might be okay.”

Interestingly, Rick found “pure browsing does not do the trick. It’s really about making yes or no choices; I want this, I don’t want this.”

Fortunately, there are similar ways to lighten your mood without spending money. Making simple choices, such as whether to rearrange a shelf or declutter your home, could trigger the same restorative effect.

Who knew feeling better came down to control?

Do We All Love a Bargain?

So if shopping can indeed make us happier — or at least trigger pleasurable chemicals — why doesn’t everyone do it all the time? Developing a psychological resistance could be one reason, according to Yarrow; the fact that no two people respond to stimuli alike is another. “I think it’s on a continuum,” she said of the phenomenon.

Rick witnessed this firsthand in 2007, when he was working on his first dissertation. In using functional MRIs (fMRIs) to scan subjects’ brains, he found the bigger the bargain, the more they displayed signs of pleasure. “It seemed like we were picking up some neural signal of joy or happiness in response to being offered a deal, and that helped to predict whether you’ll click yes or no to buy something,” he said.

But there was more to it. When the price was too high, the researchers picked up a pain signal indicating the subjects were experiencing stress. “That was proposed to explain why we like flat rates,” Rick said of the agony of watching a price increase. “It seemed to be a real response, a real thing that kind of serves as the brakes on the car. Some people have too much, other people have the brakes cut off — they don’t feel any pain.”

Shopping Addiction

With these factors in mind, how can we draw the line between a quick, harmless rush versus a full-blown addiction?

“It’s problematic if shopping is so prevalent it interferes with relationships, and you’re spending too much time doing it,” Yarrow said. “Especially in terms of time, that’s the hallmark of any addiction.”

Another sure-fire sign? Shopping so much you wind up in debt. If your credit cards are maxed out or you’re bumping up against your credit limit, your spending is probably out of control, which could impact your credit score. (You can view a free snapshot of your credit report, updated monthly, on Credit.com.)

“I find that people are not as happy with stuff,” Yarrow says. “It takes a lot of time and effort. If stuff is replacing relationships, then it’s a problem.”

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Image: Eva Katalin Kondoros

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