You’re an Impulse Buyer. Blame Yourself? Or This Chemical in Your Brain?

by Darwin on August 2, 2010

I read an interesting story in NPR this weekend showing how impulsiveness is tied to the chemical content in your brain.  Akin to how plaintiffs attorneys have tried to use genetic makeup to explain why criminals do what they do, I wonder if people knew what their dopamine levels were in their brain, if they would rationalize the poor financial shape their in due to this genetic “burden”.

According to the study, people who behave impulsively tend to have higher than normal levels of dopamine in their brain.  While the study was relatively small at 32 subjects, what they were able to show was that by scanning the brain images of the subjects and performing tests, the people who scored highest on the impulsivity test were releasing 4 times as much dopamine as the other subjects.

Are You Impulsive? How to Deal

It’s probably difficult to classify yourself as impulsive in a vacuum since you only have your own mind to compare with.  However, if you compare your behavior to that of others, without an expensive brain scan, perhaps you can reasonably discern that you fall into this camp.  Rather than blaming poor money habits on dopamine levels though, consider yourself to now be self-aware of this issue and act in ways that counteract it.  By setting limits and rules for yourself, you can turn the switch off altogether that perhaps would have sent you down the wrong road of impulsive behavior.  For instance, if impulse buying after seeing a crafty infomercial is your problem, admit that that’s a problem for you and set a rule – you are to NEVER buy anything from a TV infomercial again.  (This is probably good advice even for the non-impulsive).  But seriously, if there’s a new gadget out that you really need, chances are, you could take the proper time to research it further, save for it, factor it into your budget by dropping something else for the month, perhaps buying an equivalent or cheaper version of the same thing in a store, or just not buying it at all – with these steps being a much better method of approaching this impulse than just buying it.  If it’s credit card spending that’s killing you, switch to cash or debit.

How I Set Rules, Goals and Use Systems

Similar to some goals I set and the tools I’m using to do everything from losing weight to increasing my income and paying college for my children, you can mentally erect barriers and rules and just force yourself to follow them.  Make these rules reasonable, use the tools you’ve considered, and don’t deviate.  I have certain impulses like eating lousy food in the company caf or drinking cafe mochas, but I’ve cut it out with my rules and barriers, save for very rare exceptions.  Financially, by paying myself first via automatic 401(k) contributions and monthly outflows to the kids’ 529s, I’m forced into compliance.  And if these rules seem too rigid to ensure compliance, have a fallback position.  In the case of my diet approach, I CAN eat something lousy now and then, as long as my daily caloric intake goal is still met.  That might mean taking a jog at night or just eating a smaller meal elsewhere to offset.  From a financial standpoint, if there’s a month where I make some extra money blogging, perhaps it’s OK to splurge on a big night out with the wife or a new gadget – as long as I hit my other goals first.

But to have no goals, no rules and no systems…and act impulsively?  That’s a recipe for disaster.

What are Your Thoughts?

Is Dopamine Just an Excuse?

Or Valid Explanation for Someone’s Predicament?

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Weekend Reading – Hindenburg Omen Edition
August 22, 2010 at 11:19 am


1 Money Obedience August 3, 2010 at 10:40 am

Impulse buying has been compared to addictive behavior. Some people seem to be more prone to addictive behavior than others (maybe due to a chemical predisposition) but that does not mean one is absolved from any responsibility.

2 Budgeting in the Fun Stuff August 3, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I think the point is moot. Whether a person spends impulsively due to chemicals or not, it’s still the same problem. My family traits seemed to have left me predisposed to love sweets and develop diabetes after age 60. Yes, it’s hard to turn down the whole pint of icecream, but I do it. Yes, it’s hard to ignore the dopamine and not buy the latest thing, but it’s doable. 🙂

Darwin Reply:

@Budgeting in the Fun Stuff, Well,everyone has to blame someone or something for everything, right? Some people might blame their upbringing, the easy access to credit, or now, dopamine for their poor habits. It comes down to overcoming what real or perceived disadvantages you have in life to truly lead a fulfilling life.

3 youngandthrifty August 3, 2010 at 6:42 pm

I think it’s like any other genetic predisposition- just because you have it, doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

You have a cup- it’s half full because of non-reversible factors such as genetics to develop addictive behaviors.

If you add chronic stressors, poor coping mechanisms from environmental factors, then voila, you got addiction and impulse buying. =)

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