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I TOTALLY needed that $99 pair of light-up, pizza-alien sneakers…

The $99 pair of light-up pizza, alien shoes that we all TOTALLY need (source)

Amazon Prime one-click ordering is dangerous territory. Bacon-patterned duct-tape? A ten-pound bag of gummy bears? A pool floaty shaped like a dinosaur? The only thing standing between you and these extremely valuable purchases is 1-click (and free 2-day delivery, of course). But you needed that $99 pair of light-up pizza-alien sneakers– your purchase was entirely justified. Even though you already have 5 other pairs of sneakers, your life would not be complete without this specific pair. Let’s be real, every person (including you) has impulsively bought something and then spent the rest of the day validating or rationalizing your decision. Well, that urge to justify your purchase is a real psychological phenomenon named Post-Purchase Rationalization, or the idea that people tend to justify and defend the purchases they make even if the purchase was impulsive, misguided, inadequate or so on (i.e. you telling yourself that buying those sneakers was a good decision is you post-purchase rationalizing). 


Don’t tell me you haven’t been here before (source)

So why do we feel the need to rationalize the purchases we make? Well, we don’t like to believe that the purchases we make are worthless. The act of buying the shoes contradicts with the belief that the shoes are not valuable. Thus, we bias our belief that the shoes are not valuable and instead rationalize the purchase to agree with the act of buying the shoes. This idea of biasing our contradicting attitudes or behaviors to agree with each other is known as cognitive dissonance. Rationalization can help reduce the stress that we experience from the inconsistency between our behavior (i.e. impulsively purchasing an item) and our thoughts (i.e. knowing that we don’t actually need it).

In order for dissonance to occur, a customer must actively notice the inconsistency which takes time and attention. It is well established that people have limited attentional resources (click here to see how our limited attention affects our focus). When we spend more time making a decision, it requires more attentional resources and thus, we are able to genuinely consider whether this would be a valuable purchase. However, with less time and attention allocated to a purchase decision, the more likely we are to regret a purchase.

Hasan and Nasreen (2012) further investigated how the amount of time and attention we put into purchasing an item influences the level of dissonance we experience.  Primarily, the researchers found that the more directly involved we are in making a purchase, the more satisfied we are with the purchase and thus, we experience less dissonance and less need to engage in post-purchase rationalization. For example, if you decide on your own to purchase the sneakers, rather than having your friends or a salesperson convince you to purchase the sneakers, you are less likely to come across the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance. Making a decision on our own requires us to use more attentional resources and cognitive capacity so we become more invested and convinced by our decision. Additionally, the researchers found that the more expensive the item we purchase, the more we post-purchase rationalize because we have invested more in the product (click here to see the other cognitive processes involved in the purchase of luxury products). Furthermore, the more time we spend making a decision decreases our need to post-purchase rationalize because we experience less dissonance with a planned, well-thought-out purchase. In other words, if the decision to purchase the sneakers is made in haste and you devote less attentional resources towards the decision, the more likely you are to feel anxious and regret your decision. Consequently, you are more likely to engage in post-purchase rationalization and convince yourself that it was a valuable and justified purchase to avoid the inconsistency between your thoughts and behaviors.

Now think about the difference in time spent making a decision to purchase the sneakers at a store versus online. When you at a physical store, you are at least forced to think about the shoes for a few minutes as you try them on, feel if they are comfortable, glance at the other shoes for sale, walk around, wait in line at the register and so on. Although not long, you do have some time to consider your purchase and decide whether you may or may not regret buying it. However, the only thing stopping you from purchasing that pair of shoes online is a few clicks here and there. The time where you are forced to think about a purchase is significantly diminished (especially with Amazon-Prime where all it takes is one-click for you to make a purchase). As you can imagine, online shopping significantly increases our uncertainty and levels of regret about a purchase, ultimately leading to a higher need to post-purchase rationalize. 

Park, Hill, and Bonds-Raacke (2015) found exactly this in their study on the relationship between cognitive effort exertion and regret in online versus offline shopping. The results from their study indicated that the more cognitive effort– i.e. the amount of time, resources and attention you invest in considering a purchase– that participants used before making a purchase, the less they regretted their purchase. Furthermore, they found that participants who made purchases online consistently engaged in less cognitive effort not only because of the ease of online shopping but also because of the lack of physical characteristics (such as touch and personal sizing) available online– you can’t try on the shoes nor can you touch or hold them to determine how they feel or if they are comfortable. With less information available, the decision requires less of our attentional resources so we are not able to fully consider the decision as we would in a store. Without touch information, consumers often lose confidence in their decision and become more uncertain in their decision when missing that key information. This uncertainty exacerbates online shoppers’ regret after a purchase and requires consumers to rationalize their purchases to an even greater extent. 

Zappos is willing to put money on the fact that you didn’t make a mistake making this purchase by guaranteeing FREE shipping both ways AND 24/7 customer service (source)

So now you know that the more you think about a purchase, the less you will regret it and the less you will have to post-purchase rationalize. However, despite knowing this, we all know we’re most likely still going to buy that  $99 pair of light-up shoes– it’s just too hard to resist. After we make the purchase, not only do we want to be satisfied with our purchase but companies like Amazon also want us to be satisfied because that means we will keep coming back to them. Thus, marketing companies have investigated specific strategies to offset dissatisfactory product performance to help reduce consumer regret and expedite our post-purchase rationalization (Wang, Liang, & Peracchio, 2010). Specifically, Wang et al. (2010) highlight the effect words of affirmation, progress emails and follow-up surveys have on minimizing feelings of regret and maximizing satisfaction with your decision to buy $99 sneakers. As soon as you make your purchase, you are sent an email that says “congratulations on your purchase!” The simple congratulations affirms that you made a smart decision that is worth celebrating. Then, a few days later, you are sent an email that says  “we’ve packaged up your shoes and sent them your way– you can expect to be styling in your fresh pair of kicks in 3-5 business days.” Progress emails like this reassure customers that they can trust the decision they made and that they have not been “forgotten” about after their purchase. Companies manage to capture our attention and keep us thinking (and highly anticipating) the delivery of our purchase. Finally, a few days after your treasured new shoes arrive, you get an email asking to fill out a follow-up survey. With each additional email, the company grabs our attention and requires us to actively maintain our attention on our purchase. 

So next time you want to impulsive buy a miniature superhero cape for your dog because all it takes is one-click, take a second to breathe and think about it. However, if you do buy it (which we all know you will), be aware of the sneaky strategies Amazon uses to convince you it was a valuable purchase. But let’s be real… we all know that we will most likely continue to live in the ignorant bliss of believing that every purchase we make is worth it (because who doesn’t want to believe that what they buy is valuable?!).


 Hasan, U., & Nasreen, R. (2012). Cognitive dissonance and its impact on consumer buying behaviour. Journal of Business and Management, 1(4), 7-12. doi: /10.9790/487x-0140712  

Park, J., Hill, W., & Bonds-Raacke, J. (2015). Exploring the relationship between cognitive effort exertion and regret in online vs. offline shopping. Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 444-450. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.034

Wang, K., Liang, M., & Peracchio, L. (2011). Strategies to offset dissatisfactory product performance: The role of post-purchase marketing. Journal of Business Research, 64(8), 809-815. doi: /10.1016/j.jbusres.2010.10.006   


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