Why you can't stop buying junk

Ever wondered how we just can’t seem to stop buying things we don’t really need? Sure, we may be able to keep our purse strings tight by buckling down and tracking all our expenses, but inevitably, we tend to slip up a few times here and there.

Many things go on in the background in our decision-making process. Things like cognitive and behavioral biases can heavily affect our perception of the world around us. In this article, I’ll share about the Priming effect and a couple of cognitive heuristics that we use all the time, albeit subconsciously. Before we go on, here are some words that you should understand:

Cognition (/kɒɡˈnɪʃən/): the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired, including perception, intuition, and reasoning.

Heuristics (/hjʉˈrɪstɨk/; Greek: “Εὑρίσκω”, “find” or “discover”): experience based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that find a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal, but good enough for a given set of goals. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision.

Heuristics are basically mental shortcuts. They are quick and can be fairly accurate in certain scenarios, but extremely error prone in others. For example, if I were to ask you what proportion of your country’s population have blue hair, how would you go about giving me an answer? You would search your memory for people you encounter with blue hair. Since you don’t encounter much of these people, your answer would be “probably not a lot”. And you will be right.

Sounds interesting? Let’s dive deeper.


Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences a response to other stimulus.

This video was obviously edited in such a way to produce a comedic effect. It sounds funny here, but peppered all over the entire duration of the presentation, these “incredible”, “amazing” and “awesome” words fade into the background of your cognitive process. Subtly, they affect your perception of Apple products. Like it or not, it works incredibly well when used tactfully.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, “Blink”, cited an experiment created by psychologists Claude Steel and Joshua Aronson to test the effects of priming. They put black college students through a shortened version of the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test used for entry into graduate school:

“When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement and the number of items they got right was cut in half.”

Gladwell did not mention what “half” is compared to — I assume that it was a control group where the students were not asked to identify their race. In the research paper abstract, one of the studies “showed that mere salience of the stereotype could impair Blacks’ performance even when the test was not ability diagnostic.”

Availability Heuristic

Suppose that you are in the market looking to buy a smartphone. Fortunately, we get to benefit from the aggressive competition in this market segment. After looking at advertisements and scores of reviews on the internet, you set your eyes on the new Apple iPhone 6. The company’s track record of delivering good stuff inches you closer to swiping your credit card on that purchase. Coincidentally, your dad, your aunt and your best friend Ben have already bought the phone. Like any savvy consumer, you want to know closer firsthand accounts and evaluations of the iPhone 6 before laying the dough down.

Your dad tells you that his phone started to bloat up just 1 week into use, and found out that the battery leaked. You shrugged and went on to ask your aunt. She says that the phone is great, except that for some reason, the battery ran out really quick. Your aunt mentioned that she brought it to the service center and got it replaced straightaway on grounds of a “bad battery problem”, no questions asked. Finally, you went to look for Ben after work, this time hoping to get a favorable review. As you walk up to him, you realize that he has a hole in his pants.

“What happened?”, you asked.

“My incredible, amazing and awesome iPhone 6 just exploded in my front pocket”.

Ben needs new pants It's okay Ben, I'll buy you a new pair of pants.

Now, if your immediate reaction is to start searching online for reviews and accounts of exploding iPhone 6s, you have already used the Availability heuristic without realizing it. Despite being just a small minority in the 30 million iPhone 6/6+ models that Apple sold, you had enough grounds to believe that a manufacturing problem resulted in leaky batteries. Despite the fact that you had already done your due diligence by researching and have read hundreds of glowing reviews online, you still felt the need to ease your fears by doing even more research.

Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic

This is another common heuristic that we use subconsciously. According to David Welch, in his book, “Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making”, what it means is this:

“Quite simply, this refers to the tendency to make judgments of value, magnitude, likelihood, or degree relative to some “anchor,”, or initial available value. If you can manipulate that initial value, you can sometimes exert quite a strong influence on someone’s judgments.”

Businesses exploit this blatantly and it works so well — words like “50% off” have a powerful draw on us. We end up paying a little more than what the company could have charged without the discount tag. Sometimes, we even end up buying junk that we don’t need at all. What makes it even more effective, is this:

(Original) Amazon product listing page The strikethrough price tag acts as an "Anchor"

Instead of telling you that it’s on a 50% discount, Amazon realized that it’s more effective if you infer it yourself. I changed the design of the product listing a little in Photoshop so you can see the effects for yourself:

(Edited) Amazon product listing page Not as compelling as before

The design of the actual product listing on Amazon is completely intentional. I know this because I once applied for a job as a web designer at a global e-commerce company with a market cap well over 10 billion dollars. I was told that my job scope included testing numerous variations of layout designs to maximize conversion rates; a 0.1% increase can easily translate into tens of thousands of dollars. Every pixel you see on these big online sites are almost always designed to make you click through and buy stuff.

So, how does knowing all these help?

Let’s begin with the understanding that we’re not created with brain defects. For example, the reason why the priming effect even exists, is because our brain tries to take care of all the little things around us. This allows us to concentrate and focus on a particular task, even though our senses continue to collect vast amounts of information at the same time. Don’t disdain the human brain because of cognitive biases; our brain is designed wonderfully and is an amazing thing to behold. Imagine walking out into the street without filters — we’d probably crumble from sensory and information overload!

Here are 3 tips for your consideration:

  • A trick that I use when mulling over buying something is to sleep on the decision for a day or two, or even up to a week sometimes. During this period of time, I consciously avoid thinking about it in detail to allow the effects of priming to wear off.
  • To deal with errors arising from the Availability heuristic, I suggest putting down your concerns in numbers and statistics. Seeing the iPhone 6 having a 0.0000000001% chance of exploding in your pants might just make you feel better ignoring Ben’s tragic accident.
  • The Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic is tricky. Exploiting this weakness is the bread and butter of salespeople, and it will continue to work very well. My only tip is the same as the first one — sleep over it, but no guarantees that you wouldn’t be misled the next time round!

In my next post, I’ll attempt to shed some light on Dark Patterns and how designers manipulate us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t. Stay tuned!