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Table of Contents
                            The Psychology of Impulse Buying: An Integrative Self-Regulation Approach
	Defining and Positioning Impulse Buying
	Perspectives on Impulse Buying
		The Limited Information Processor
		Biased by Proximity
		The Impulse Buyer Personality
		Purchasing Symbols of Values and Identity
		Hunting for Pleasure and Forgetting Your Sorrows
		Conscious Self-Control or the Lack of It
		Compulsive Buying
	A Self-Regulation Perspective on Impulse Buying
		Promotion Strategies
		Prevention Strategies
	Consumer Self-Regulation or Regulation of Consumers?
Document Text Contents
Page 1



The Psychology of Impulse Buying: An Integrative
Self-Regulation Approach

Bas Verplanken & Ayana Sato

Received: 10 August 2010 /Accepted: 7 March 2011 /
Published online: 26 March 2011
# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2011

Abstract Impulsive buying grossly violates the assumptions of homo economicus. A
variety of perspectives on impulse buying are presented, which have been put forward in
consumer, economic, social, and clinical psychology. These include heuristic information
processing, time-inconsistent preferences, personality traits and values, self-identity,
emotions, conscious self-control, and compulsive buying. These perspectives may
sometimes lead to contradictory or paradoxical findings. For instance, impulse buying is
often associated with joy and pleasure but has also been found related to negative emotions
and low self-esteem. Our argument is that impulsive buying can be understood in terms of
psychological functioning, in particular as a form of self-regulation. Regulatory focus
theory is then used to bring the various perspectives together by classifying each as a
promotion focus strategy (e.g., seeking pleasure) or a prevention focus strategy (e.g.,
avoiding feelings of low self-esteem). Finally, the question is discussed whether consumers
can and should be protected against impulsivity. Our assertion is that regulation against
misleading practices that play on the vulnerabilities of impulsive buyers could be sharpened
and that information provision to consumers and retailers aimed at strengthening
consumers’ self-regulatory capacities may mitigate adverse consequences of impulse

Keywords Impulse buying . Compulsive buying . Self-regulation . Consumer policy

Most of us are familiar with returning home with products we never intended to buy
in the first place. Impulsive buying has long been identified as a significant
behaviour in retail business (e.g., Stern 1962). Impulsive buying is a universal
phenomenon, although it may be manifested in different ways subject to individual
differences such as gender (e.g., Dittmar et al. 1995, 1996; Verplanken and Herabadi
2001) or culture (Kacen and Lee 2002). Impulse buying is an interesting psychological
phenomenon. This was unequivocally put forward by Rook (1987), who described

J Consum Policy (2011) 34:197–210
DOI 10.1007/s10603-011-9158-5

B. Verplanken (*) : A. Sato
Department of Psychology, University of Bath, Bath, UK
e-mail: [email protected]

Page 2

impulse buying as a psychologically driven urge to buy. Since this seminal article,
impulse buying has been approached from very different psychological perspectives,
each of which highlights different constructs or mechanisms which might explain this
behaviour, such as personality, emotions, identity concerns, cognitive processes, self-
control, or psychopathology. While these perspectives together provide a rich account of
the impulse buying phenomenon, they also lead to a degree of confusion, and produce
inconsistencies and discrepancies in research findings. In this article we will first discuss
the definition of impulse buying. We will then focus on the various perspectives on
impulse buying as these have been put forward in consumer, economic, social, and
clinical psychology. We continue by presenting an overarching framework of
psychological functioning, which has the potential to reconcile some of the seemingly
contradictory or paradoxical findings on impulse buying. Finally, we will discuss
implications for policy and regulation.

Defining and Positioning Impulse Buying1

Impulse buying is difficult to define. It is not merely doing “unplanned shopping” (Stern
1962). Purchases may be unplanned but not impulsive, such as habitual purchases,
purchases that unexpectedly solve an existing problem, or purchases that are simply too
unimportant to plan or think about. Purchases may also be impulsive, but planned, such as
shopping to find someone a present, or using the retail environment as “shopping list,” for
instance when finding ingredients for an Italian style meal. Taking the time or the location
of the purchase as a criterion for impulse buying does not provide a satisfactory definition.
For instance, Bellenger et al. (1978) considered impulse buying as a purchase decision
made “after entering a store,” but this may then include the examples we just disqualified.
Although certain products are more frequently bought on impulse than others, defining
impulse buying according to a fixed set of designated impulse products is not a viable
criterion either due to wide individual and cultural differences. Rook (1987) provided a
comprehensive definition of impulse buying, which includes three key features, i.e., a
purchase being unplanned, difficult to control, and accompanied by an emotional response:
“ Impulse buying occurs when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and
persistent urge to buy something immediately. The impulse to buy is hedonically complex
and may stimulate emotional conflict. Also, impulse buying is prone to occur with
diminished regard for its consequences” (p. 191). We consider this as a useful definition for
the purpose of this article.

Impulsive buying may not easily be described by the prevalent models of behaviour,
most notably socio-cognitive models such as the theory of planned behaviour (e.g., Ajzen
1991). These models suggest that behaviour is inherently intentional and ultimately driven
by perceived personal or social consequences. Although the variables included in these
models may play a role in impulse buying, such as perceived costs and benefits (Puri 1996)
or normative influences (Rook and Fisher 1995), socio-cognitive models suggest a degree
of reflection which is typically absent in impulsive buying. Other models, in particular dual-
process models of attitude–behaviour relations that posit a distinction between deliberate
and more automatic processes (e.g., Fazio 1990; Petty and Wegener 1998; Strack and
Deutsch 2004), may be more appropriate to describe impulsive buying.

1 We use the terms “ impulsive buying” and “ impulse buying” interchangeably in this article.

198 B. Verplanken, A. Sato

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products that are typically bought on impulse. Participants in the neutral mood condition spent
on average 37% of their money on these unhealthy products, whereas participants in the
negative and positive mood conditions spent 49% and 59%, respectively on the unhealthy
snacks. The differences between the neutral mood condition on the one hand and the negative
and positive mood conditions on the other hand were statistically significant.

Conscious Self-Control or the Lack of It

Impulsive buying has been framed as a result from a lack of self-control (e.g., Baumeister
2002; Faber and Vohs 2004; Vohs et al. 2008a, b; Vohs and Faber 2007). According to these
authors, the task at hand is to exert conscious self-control in resisting the temptations of
buying desired products. Self-control may consist of actions such as thinking about
spending the money, walking away from the displayed product, or down-regulating elated
emotions. However, the task of exerting self-control may fail. Baumeister (2002) discussed
three causes why this might happen. The first may be a conflict of goals, for instance saving
money versus satisfying the desire to possess an item. Secondly, self-control may break
down when people stop monitoring their behaviour. This is a well-known phenomenon in
the realm of eating. For instance, once dieters feel they have broken their standard, they
may stop monitoring food intake and overeat much more (e.g., Polivy et al. 1986). Finally,
effective self-control requires a certain amount of mental resources, and sometimes people
lack those resources, for instance due to mental exhaustion. This has been denoted as ego-
depletion. For instance, Vohs and Faber (2007) tested this hypothesis by having participants
to 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 buy on impulse. It was found that when participants had exerted self-control, they were
less able to resist their impulses to buy, and spent more money compared to participants
who did not exert self-control in the first task. Depletion of resources may occur for various
reasons. One that is particularly ironic with respect to impulsive shopping is the very act of
shopping itself. Vohs et al. (2008) demonstrated that making choices has the potential to
deplete mental resources, which, when depleted, may result in less self-control and thus
make customers on a shopping expedition even more vulnerable to impulsive buying.

Compulsive Buying

So far, we have addressed impulsive shopping as a relatively innocent consumer behaviour.
However, impulsive shopping is less innocent if it takes the form of compulsive shopping
(e.g., d’Astous 1990; DeSarbo and Edwards 1996; Dittmar 2005a, b; Dittmar and Drury
2000; Dittmar et al. 2007; Faber and O’Guinn 1992, 2008; Hanley and Wilhelm 1992;
Kyrios et al. 2004; Mowen and Spears 1999; O’Guinn and Faber 1989; Roberts 1998;
Scherhorn 1990; Yurchisin and Johnson 2004). We are thus entering the arena of
psychopathology, where this form of consumer behaviour is known as compulsive buying
disorder (e.g., Black 2007). Compulsive buying may lead to extreme suffering in the form
of financial debt and the disruption of family life and personal relationships.

O’Guinn and Faber (1989) defined compulsive buying as “ (…) chronic, repetitive
purchasing that occurs as a response to negative events or feelings. The alleviation of these
negative feelings is the primary motivation for engaging in the behaviour. Buying should
provide the individual with short-term positive rewards, but result in long-term negative
consequences. Once developed, the individual should face great difficulty in controlling
buying even after its detrimental effects are recognized” (p. 149). Compulsive buying is

The Psychology of Impulse Buying 203

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typically associated with the darker sides of psychological functioning such as low self-
esteem and negative affect (d’Astous 1990; DeSarbo and Edwards 1996; Hanley and
Wilhelm 1992; Kyrios et al. 2004; O’Guinn and Faber 1989; Roberts 1998), high but
unstable self-esteem, such as the narcissist personality (Rose 2007), deep-seated
pathological conditions such as mood and anxiety disorders and disorders of impulse
control such as those related to substance use and eating (e.g., Black 2007). At first glance,
compulsive buying may seem an extreme form of impulse buying. Compulsive buying is
linked to factors that also drive impulsive purchases, such as materialistic values and
identity concerns (DeSarbo and Edwards 1996; Dittmar 2005a; Dittmar et al. 2007; Hanley
and Wilhelm 1992; Mowen and Spears 1999; Yurchisin and Johnson 2004). Vice versa,
impulsive buying tendency has been found related to low self-esteem and negative affect
(Rook and Gardner 1993; Silvera et al. 2008; Verplanken et al. 2005). Both compulsive and
impulsive buying have been found related to lack of conscientiousness and openness to
change (Mowen and Spears 1999; Verplanken and Herabadi 2001). However, Mowen and
Spears (1999) found compulsive buying related to emotional instability, whereas this was
not the case for impulsive buying in the Verplanken and Herabadi (2001) study, and the
latter found a relationship with extravertedness, which was not found in the former. These
differences between impulsive and compulsive buying support the argument that the two
phenomena should be classified as being qualitatively distinct (Faber and O’Guinn

A Self-Regulation Perspective on Impulse Buying

Why is impulse buying associated with positive and negative emotions? Why is it linked to
low self-esteem, but also with hedonistic values, extravertedness, narcissism, and symbols
of identity? Considering this wide variety of factors, and some seemingly inconsistent
findings, the conclusion must be that there is no simple model of antecedents that could
explain this type of consumer behaviour. Rather, impulse buying is part of complex and
dynamic psychological functioning and can be considered as a form of psychological self-
regulation (Vohs and Faber 2007). Self-regulation refers to the ability to regulate thoughts,
feelings, and behaviours such that the outcome is in line with a standard (e.g., Baumeister
and Vohs 2004; Gross 2007; Vohs et al. 2008a, b).2 Many of the problems some people
experience, such as overeating, addictions, aggression, breakdown of relationships, or
burnout can be traced back to failures to self-regulate.

Self-regulation theories represent a system approach (e.g., Carver and Scheier 1998).
Key features of system models are the presence of a standard, the monitoring of the current
status of the system, a comparison of the current status with the standard, and the potential
for action to balance out discrepancies. A simple example of a system is the heating of a
house, which has a standard (desired temperature), a monitoring and comparison device
(thermostat), and a machine to restore the balance (heater). Such feedback systems not only
govern much of our biology but are also essential in our psychological functioning, where it
is known as self-regulation. In line with a system approach, self-regulation implies
standards, monitoring, and action. Standards can be held in the form of goals, norms, rules,

2 Self-regulation is sometimes equated with self-control (e.g., Baumeister 2002). Although exerting self-
control may often be an important tool for self-regulation, self-control refers to conscious and deliberate
processes, whereas self-regulation may also encompass automatic and nonconscious processes (e.g.,
Dijksterhuis and Aarts 2010; Vohs and Baumeister 2004).

204 B. Verplanken, A. Sato

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