Buying fast and slow – how impulses control our purchases

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A vending machine in Japan – perfect for impulse purchases. Photo by Trevor Dobson

Enter most large supermarkets and the first few aisles you reach are for fresh fruit and vegetables.

By the time you reach the final few aisles things are very different.

Here you will find biscuits, crisps, and cakes.

These tempting treats are intended to catch you at your most vulnerable – when your judgement is impaired by choice overload and tiredness.

Some supermarkets even place nappies near to the beer aisle, with research showing that when men go to buy baby items they are inclined to reward themselves with a box or two of lager.

Impulse purchases belong to what the Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking.

“System 1 is fast; it’s intuitive, associative, metaphorical, automatic, impressionistic, and it can’t be switched off. Its operations involve no sense of intentional control, but it’s the ‘secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make'”, explains Galen Strawson, in a review of Kahneman’s most famous work, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow.’

This contrasts with System 2 thinking, which is “slow, deliberate, effortful. Its operations require attention.”

System 2 governs what you have written on your shopping list. System 1 determines what is actually in your trolley. Just visit IKEA to see this in action.

Impulse purchases are everywhere if you look for them – each offering some form of instant gratification.

Buy a premium amplifier online and you are sure to be offered overpriced cables as an add-on to your purchase. Really you should shop around – but what the hell. You want to try your new toy as soon as possible, and even the most expensive cables seem cheap relative to the cost of an amplifier.

Ads on Instagram are increasingly playing to our impulses – with purchases just one click away that promise to unlock glamour and excitement.

Entire industries are built on System 1 thinking. What else is a roadside McDonald’s or Starbucks but an impulse purchase you can make without even getting out of your car?

And it all adds up. According to one recent survey Britons spend on average close to £200 a month on impulse buys.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post.

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