MIT study: Paying with credit cards activates your brain to create ‘purchase cravings’ for more spending

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Using credit cards stimulates the brain’s reward system and an urge for further spending, according to a recent study from MIT that examined the neuroscience of buying things.

Credit card shopping tells us to “step on the gas” and leads to more “purchase cravings” in the future, Drazen Prelec, study author and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said in a release.

Previous research has shown that people tend to spend more when paying with a credit card versus cash. For this new study, researchers used MRI machines to see what’s happening in the brain when people are prompted to buy an item with cash or a credit card.

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While inside the MRI, participants were shown various items on a screen, from video games to beauty products, that they could add to their shopping cart. They had the option to pay for the products with $50 cash or a credit card.

People were more willing to buy more expensive items with credit than cash and spent more overall when using a credit card, the study authors wrote.

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When people bought things with a credit card, the MRI showed that a region of the brain’s reward system, called the striatum, was activated. The striatum is responsible for releasing dopamine, and is involved in reward, reinforcement, pleasure and even addiction.

“The reward networks in the brain that are activated by all kinds of rewards are activated by a credit card purchase,” Prelec said.

Credit card “cues,” like logos or buy-now buttons, essentially “activate the pursuit of rewarding products,” the study authors wrote.


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