Study: Credit Cards Hijack Your Brain, Leading to More Spending

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Excited woman with credit card
Roman Samborskyi /

Credit cards get you to spend by creating a “purchase craving” in your brain, according to a new study out of the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Researchers say the study is the first to show evidence that a consumer’s choice of payment method can trigger different types of brain activation.

In the words of two of the study authors — Drazen Prelec of MIT and Sachin Banker of the University of Utah — when you use a credit card instead of cash, it serves to “step on the gas,” driving more spending “by putting costs out-of-mind regardless of the price of the product.”

In a press announcement from the MIT Sloan School of Management, Prelec says:

“Prior studies have shown that credit cards have a different effect on consumers than cash and are often blamed for overspending and household debt. But it is unclear from standard research tools whether credit cards ‘release the brakes’ by removing the pain of payment or ‘step on the gas’ by creating a craving to spend.”

The study found that paying with a credit card sensitizes reward networks in the brain. The process involves the striatum, a dopaminergic reward center that drugs like cocaine and amphetamines exploit.

Once these reward networks are sensitized, credit card use drives an increase in purchases.

As Prelec says:

“The reward networks in the brain that are activated by all kinds of rewards are activated by a credit card purchase. The act of putting that plastic credit card in your hand is associated with enjoyable purchases.”

The study also found that different types of cards — and the way they are used — elicit different types of spending. So, a card used at a restaurant or during a vacation spurs a different appetite for spending than a card used to fill up your gas tank, for example.

Looking for a new credit card — hopefully one that will not make you spend more? Stop by Money Talks News’ Solutions Center and search for the perfect credit card for you.

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