Medical Journal: Before shopping, drop everything and read this

Folks heading for the car dealership, appliance store or department store this holiday weekend might want to consider some of the recent brain and behavioral research on what drives us to spend as we do.

It turns out that things as simple as a sense of balance, sweaty palms and a racing heart, or just hearing some words that have a calming effect, can help keep us from burning up the credit cards.

Several years ago, scientists used brain imaging to chart the regions activated by aspects of the shopping experience. Various segments of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain involved in complex thought, activate when someone is judging how desirable a product is. Meanwhile, seeing higher prices made another part of the cortex, the insular, light up, while deactivating another part called the prefrontal cortex.

More recent studies have attempted to consider some of the external factors that may influence how we measure values and control spending.

The balancing-act results come from a study done by researchers at Brigham Young University and published in the August issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

In shopping experiments run in malls and in the lab, the researchers found that consumers experiencing a heightened sense of balance are more likely to carefully weigh buying options and go middle-of-the-road with what they buy.

That sense of balance can be as simple as standing on one foot while looking at shelves or leaning back in a chair while shopping online to something more exotic, like shopping in high heels or going to a yoga class before hitting the stores.

The researchers said women might well want to pay attention to whether they're wearing stilettos or flats when they set out on a shopping jaunt and consider just how balanced they feel.

No matter what activated this sense of balance, the researchers found that test subjects who focused on balance were, for instance, more likely to pick the 42-inch TV for $450 over either a 50-incher for $650 or a 32-inch set for $300.

Next up, the impact of a racing heart, produced in tests run by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Researchers there found that consumers who had a positive attitude about negotiating felt more empowered if they had an increased heart rate as they worked to strike a deal.

After assessing subjects' attitudes about wheeling and dealing, each was asked to walk on a treadmill while negotiating the price of a used car. Some walked slowly, while others walked quickly to increase their heart rates.

Those with negative attitudes about striking a deal but who had elevated heart rates said they were less satisfied with negotiations than those who walked slowly. But for people who had a positive outlook on negotiating, those who walked at a faster pace to elevate their heart rate said they were more satisfied with the deal they struck.

A second test, involving the negotiation of an employment compensation package, produced similar results.

Writing in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science, researchers said it appears that those who hate negotiations felt their faster heart rate was just a sign of nervousness, but those who enjoy the chase felt the extra beats were a sign of excitement that left them feeling "up for the game" as they sought to strike a deal.

Then there are those code words.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois report in the September issue of the journal Cognition that hearing or seeing subliminal words like "calm down," "still" or "rest" gave volunteers better self-control when doing a rapid-fire skills test on a computer. By contrast, exposure to action words like "run," "go," "hit" or "start" reduced the level of inhibition in volunteers.

The researchers noted that the messages the volunteers were getting really had nothing to do with the assigned task, but brain-wave recordings showed there was an impact all the same.

That means that inhibition or self-control may not require conscious control to operate and that action/inaction messages could work as well for taking an extra cookie or not lighting up a smoke as not spending money when we shouldn't.

(Contact Scripps health and science writer Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com . Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com .)

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