An article on ScienceBlog.com discusses how researchers have used a functional MRI to image the brains of shoppers while they make purchase decisions… In the past, it was thought that consumers decided between the immediate, visceral pleasure of making the purchase and the reflective, delayed pleasure of retaining the money or purchasing future items.
In reality, a choice is made between the pleasure of purchasing or owning the item and the pain of spending the money. This is a small but important distinction, since pleasure is linked with the tendency to approach and pain is linked with the tendency to avoid.
Previous MRI studies have found that different parts of the brain are active when people experience gains (associated with pleasure), and losses (associated with pain). Researchers found that they could accurately predict the purchase decisions of shoppers by noting which area of the brain was more active when shoppers considered a purchase. This result may also help to explain why it tends to be easier to spend with credit than cash, since the “pain” of monetary loss is offset.
For more on how emotions influence purchase decisions, see Purchase Decisions are Based on Emotional Meaning.