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The actual science behind what makes people spend money

Want people to give you money for your product or service? Then you should get to know what really opens wallets.

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Neuroscientists explain what opens wallets

When all is said and done, we are, at best, civilized creatures of habit. Instinctually, there is very little to separate us from our cave-dwelling predecessors: we eat when we can, as often as we can, most likely cleaning our plates when we do so—regardless of how full we are—because we are driven to stock up when it’s an option; we deliberately search for sustenance and comfort that is most familiar; and we find ourselves stuck in patterns.

Neuroscientists have recently narrowed these instincts down to three “irresistible impulses” that work in the subconscious mind whenever we shop, essentially backseat driving our spending. These three impulses include survival, habits, and goals. Far from being simple social constructs, these are firmly engrained instincts that have evolved to fit the criteria of modern-day civilization.

And, like any other instinct, they’re easy targets for a marketing agenda.

Tapping into our survival instincts

Survival-based spending, in particular, is the most common—and identifiable—behavior in consumerism. Instinct persuades us to buy as much as our budget will allow us (and, sometimes, it will facilitate boundary-pushing when we see a “good deal”) because, historically, we haven’t known from when or where our next supply of resources would come. This is an easily-transferrable concept to social dynamic.

The socialization of the survival instinct is why you opt for the extended warranty on a brand-new tablet, spend an extra $400 on high-quality tires, or purchase three packages of sausage when they’re on sale instead of one. It’s simple: you’re protecting your most valuable assets. The crucial aspects of day-to-day life have undergone a paradigm shift, from physical survival to social perseverance; we haven’t changed our behavior a whit—we’ve just altered what is necessary to flourish in the concrete jungle of today’s society.

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A basic understanding of this concept is key to successful marketing and maximized revenue. We may not be fighting over who brought home the biggest elk anymore, but the general idea is the same: appeal to the customer’s sense of preservation, whether it regards assets or literal survival, and they will fight tooth and nail for a favorable outcome.


Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

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