How Credit Cards Affect Our Brains
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How Credit Cards Affect Our Brains

Buying with plastic doesn’t just eliminate a barrier to buying. It actively encourages purchases.

By Cheryl Winokur Munk
Tue, May 4, 2021 10:18amGrey Clock 2 min

It’s been known for decades that credit cards encourage spending. But why that happens still isn’t entirely clear. New research offers some fresh insight into the causes—and how consumers might be manipulated in an increasingly cashless society.

Research on credit-card spending has tended toward the explanation that delaying payment removes a barrier to purchases in shoppers’ minds. A study published in February in Scientific Reports found evidence of another kind of trigger. Differences it found in brain activity between shoppers planning to use a credit card and those planning to buy with cash indicate that buying on credit doesn’t just ease shoppers’ inhibitions, it actively encourages purchases, the researchers say.

The upshot: When people are shopping with credit cards and see a product they like, the neural network in the brain that produces a sensation of reward perks up, which seems to create a craving to spend, says Sachin Banker, assistant professor at the University of Utah, who worked on the study as a Ph.D. student at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“You’re basically feeling more reward when you shop with credit cards,” he says. “We don’t see that with cash. It was actually a very stark difference.”

Researchers used a form of magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain activity of the study subjects as they participated in a shopping exercise. Each participant was shown a total of 84 everyday products over the course of three sessions and was asked whether they would buy each product at the stated price. Half the products were offered for purchase by credit card and half for purchase with cash. None of the products cost more than $50.

The differences in the shoppers’ brain activity support the hypothesis that after repeated credit-card purchases over time the brain learns to anticipate the rewards of credit-card shopping, according to the report. And that suggests that consumers could be conditioned to spend through the use of various sensory rewards in new payment systems, Dr. Banker says. For instance, with digital payments the use of particular sounds or vibrations on your smartphone when you make certain purchases but not others could, over time, teach your brain to anticipate rewards for buying specific products while you’re shopping.

Dr. Banker adds that further research could be done to see if the study’s theories hold true at higher prices. It also could study consumers who tend to overuse or misuse credit cards, to understand further why they act as they do. This study focused on people who mostly paid on time and used credit cards appropriately. Understanding brain patterns for other types of consumers could help lead to solutions that attempt to pre-empt harmful spending behaviour, Dr. Banker says.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 1, 2021



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Boost for World Economy as U.S., Eurozone Accelerate in Tandem

Surveys point to a fresh acceleration in the U.S., even as growth in the eurozone strengthens

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Global economic growth is becoming more broad based, with surveys indicating that business activity in both the U.S. and the eurozone gained momentum in May.

The eurozone economy contracted in the second half of 2023 following a surge in energy and food prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent rise in interest rates intended to tame that inflation.

By contrast, the U.S. economy expanded strongly over the same period, opening up an unusually wide growth gap with the eurozone. That gap narrowed as the eurozone returned to growth in the first three months of the year, while the U.S. slowed.

However, surveys released Thursday point to a fresh acceleration in the U.S., even as growth in the eurozone strengthened. That bodes well for a global economy that relied heavily on the U.S. for its dynamism in 2023.

The S&P Global Flash U.S. Composite PMI —which gauges activity in the manufacturing and services sectors—rose to 54.4 in May from 51.3 in April, marking a 25-month high and the first time since the beginning of the year that the index hasn’t slowed. A level over 50 indicates expansion in private-sector activity.

“The data put the U.S. economy back on course for another solid gross domestic product gain in the second quarter,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Eurozone business activity in turn increased for the third straight month in May, and at the fastest pace in a year, the surveys suggest. The currency area’s joint composite PMI rose to 52.3 from 51.7.

The uptick was led by powerhouse economy Germany, where continued strength in services and improvement in industry drove activity to its highest level in a year. That helped the manufacturing sector in the bloc as a whole grow closer to recovery, reaching a 15-month peak.

By contrast, surveys of purchasing managers pointed to a slowdown in the U.K. economy following a stronger-than-expected start to the year that saw it outpace the U.S. The survey was released a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a surprise election for early July, banking on signs of an improved economic outlook to turn around a large deficit in the opinion polls.

Similar surveys pointed to a further acceleration in India’s rapidly-expanding economy, and to a rebound in Japan, where the economy contracted in the first three months of the year. In Australia, the surveys pointed to a slight slowdown in growth during May.

Businesses reported that they were raising their prices at the slowest pace since November, which should reassure the European Central Bank. However, the eurozone continued to add jobs in May, suggesting that wages might not cool as rapidly as the ECB had hoped.

The ECB released figures Thursday that showed wages negotiated by labor unions in the eurozone were 4.7% higher in the first quarter than a year earlier, a faster increase than the 4.5% recorded in the final three months of 2023

The ECB has signalled it will lower its key interest rate in early June, while the Fed is waiting for evidence that a slowdown in inflation will resume after setbacks this year.

Nevertheless, eurozone businesses and households shouldn’t bank on successive cuts to borrowing costs, ECB Vice President Luis de Guindos said. “There is a huge degree of uncertainty,” he said. “We have made no decisions on the number of interest rate cuts or on their size,” he said in an interview published Thursday. “We will see how economic data evolve.”

Continued resilience in the eurozone economy would likely make the ECB more cautious about lowering borrowing costs after its first move, economist Franziska Palmas at Capital Economics wrote in a note. “If the economy continues to hold up well, cuts further ahead may be slower than we had anticipated,” she said.

– Edward Frankl contributed to this story.

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Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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