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Why buying hurts

Pain during purchase?

Why buying hurts

Many marketing theories assume that the motivation to purchase has a lot to do with positive feelings and pleasure. Neuromarketing research has therefore been focusing on the nucleus accumbens, the part of our brain that deals with pleasure, desire and motivation. But new fMRI studies show that insula also plays an important role.

Brain pain

The insula is the region of the brain that plays a major role in registering and assessing pain. It acts as the opponent to the nucleus accumbens. Emotional pain is recorded in the same way as physical pain. In addition, the insula processes emotions such as disgust and anger. These basic emotions are often felt subconsciously, without thinking about them, and therefore their role in purchasing decisions has not previously surfaced during traditional market research surveys.

The purchasing brain

In 2007 an important study was published as a result of the collaboration between researchers at American universities Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and MIT. Participants each received twenty dollars with the message that they should spend this money on anything they like, or keep it. While their brain activity was monitored with an fMRI scanner, they were shown images of some products. Upon seeing a product, such as a box of luxury chocolates, the pleasure center of the brain became visibly active. The participants were then shown the price of the product. Ths produced activity in the insula: paying hurts, and that starts with seeing the price.

This research proves that shopping is not only about enjoyment, but also about pain. There is a battle between these two feelings in the medial prefrontal cortex and it is this part of the brain that plays a key role in decision-making.


impulsief kopen Whether the desire for a product, or the feeling of pain when seeing the price, gains the upper hand when considering a purchase, depends on several factors. Each person has a different pain threshold of pricepain, just like physical pain. Some simply have a more sensitive wallet than others. In addition, context is also of great importance. How intense the insula reacts depends largely on whether the person finds the price justified or not, and therefore if they think the product is worth the price.

Analgesic marketing

Ultimately, we aim to make our product win the selection battle between pleasure and pain. There are two routes to achieving this: increase the attractiveness of the product, or take away the pain. As long as the price is above the pain threshold of the (individual) consumer, it will not matter how attractive you present your product, the pain is insurmountable. It is therefore even more important to reassure the insula. We have some tips for this:

  • Provide the option to pay afterwards. The pain and pleasure centers are among the traditional brain areas. These brain areas are strongly focused on the here and now, so that the pain is not felt when payment is not made immediately.
  • Use soothing language; This helps consumers to consider the price in context which can dampen the pain.
  • Give discounts; this will help to ensure that the price will lie below the pain threshold. Beware: it can also cause the context to shift and make your product seem worth less.
  • Bundle products; especially for the more expensive products bundles can work well, because there is only one decision moment neccessary instead of a series of repetitive shooting pains.
  • The framing and anchoring of the price; put your offer beside expensive options to make it look cheaper. You can also play with numbers to create a pain-free framework, for example, specify the price per month. ’12 euros’ looks cheaper than €12.00 (and even cheaper than €11.99; just ask the Hema!).
  • Emphasize what the customer is missing out on if they don’t buy your product; this is perhaps the most powerful tip of all. In this way you make proper use of the power of the insula by pointing out to the consumer the pain that awaits them when they miss your offer.

Emphasize what the customer is missing out on if they don’t buy your product; this is perhaps the most powerful tip of all. In this way you make proper use of the power of the insula by pointing out to the consumer the pain that awaits them when they miss your offer.


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