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

You already know that buying things with a credit card puts you at risk of going deeper into debt. It’s just too easy to pay the minimum and push your goal to be debt-free into the next month. But, new research shows that the problems that credit card use can cause are even more insidious than that. Researchers at MIT put volunteers into an MRI to see exactly what is happening inside our brains when we make a purchase with plastic instead of cash.

Credit Cards Light Up Our Reward System

During the study, participants were shown items on a screen that they could add to a virtual shopping cart. Half were given the option to pay with cash, half with a credit card. Those who used the cards were more likely to buy more expensive items. They also spent more overall.

The reason for this could be the brain response associated with using the card. The MRI showed that the region of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards was activated when using the card. This area of the brain is responsible for the release of dopamine. 

Visual cues like credit card logos and buy-now buttons were also shown to prompt cravings for rewards. The study’s authors say that our brains have been chronically sensitized by previous experience with credit cards. Credit cards are associated with enjoyable purchases, so our brains are primed for pleasure when we are anticipating a purchase.

Why Cash Doesn’t Send the Same Signals

One interesting thing that researchers noticed is that paying cash for the same pleasurable purchases doesn’t set off our reward system the same way. This is likely because paying with a credit card instead of paying with cash makes costs abstract. It’s easy to put the money out of your mind when you aren’t physically seeing it leave your hands.

Breaking Overspending Habits

If it is your goal to become debt-free and fix credit issues from the past, the first thing you need to do is readjust your relationship with money. Try to only use cash for recreational purchases like games, restaurant meals, and beauty products. Not only does this ensure that you are only buying what you can pay for right now; you are also likely to make smaller purchases than you would if you were paying with a card.

Changes don’t happen overnight. It can take some time to fix old patterns and replace them with new ones. In the meantime, keep important goals like going debt-free at the forefront. While it doesn’t give the immediate rewards a pleasurable purchase does, the long-term improvement to your wellbeing is worth it.

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