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The researchers found that when the participants were presented with the products, a subcortal brain region known as the nucleus accumbens that is associated with the anticipation of pleasure was activated.
When the subjects were presented with prices that were excessive, two things happened: the brain region known as the insula was activated and a part of the brain associated with balancing gains versus losses -- the medial prefrontal cortex -- was deactivated.
Furthermore, by studying which regions were activated, the authors were able to successfully predict whether the study participants would decide to purchase each item.
Activations of the regions associated with product preference and with weighing gains and losses indicated that a person would decide to purchase a product.
In contrast, when the region associated with excessive prices was activated participants chose not to buy a product.
This study challenges the conventional economic account of consumer purchases, which views consumers as deciding between the immediate pleasure of making a purchase and the delayed pleasures of alternative things for which the same money could be used.
The results of this paper support an alternative perspective that views consumers as trading off the immediate pleasure of making a purchase against an immediate pain: the pain of forking out the money for the item.
The results can explain the growing tendency of consumers to overspend when purchasing items with credit cards instead of cash, because consumers do not immediately pay for items charged to credit cards and the "pain" of the potential loss is minimized.
Economic policies designed to promote savings would thus need to take this into account.
It also suggests that differences in how much people spend and save may be partly explained by differences in the degree to which they find spending money painful.
The Neuron paper was authored by Scott Rick and George Loewenstein of the Department of Social and Decisions Sciences at Carnegie Mellon; Brian Knutson and G. Elliott Wimmer of the Department of Psychology at Stanford; and Drazen Prelec at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
Adapted from materials provided by Carnegie Mellon University.
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