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If sales generally feel hard to resist, the sale in front of Aarron Schurevich was the ultimate test: a new Kia Soul just like the one he’d had and loved, at a dealership he trusted, at a moment when he really needed a car. And it was priced $4,000 off, more than a 20% discount.

“I figured that I would be an idiot not to to take advantage of that,” says Schurevich, a teacher from Omaha, Neb. “I’d better snatch this opportunity before it evaporates.”

After he sped through paperwork and drove the car off the lot, the deal turned sour. Bills arrived with hidden charges. The brand-new car quickly needed repairs. Schurevich now jokes that he paid a tax for being a fool.

“You know it’s that kind of voice in the back of my head that’s like, ‘Are you being a sucker?'” Schurevich says. “And unfortunately, that day, that voice was a little bit quieter than it oughta have been.”

Why is it so hard for the human brain to resist a discount? What’s the deal with deals? This big-ticket example illustrates all the dynamics that play out when any of us fall for a sale.

How a sale works its way through your brain

When you shop, there’s usually a standoff in your brain between what can be described as its emotional and rational parts.

“The human brain has essentially evolved to feel first and think next,” says Carolyn Yoon, who studies consumer neuroscience at the University of Michigan.

Spotting something you’d like to to buy activates your brain’s reward circuitry. Dopamine-fueled impulses pump you up. Anticipation might have you imagining how great life would be with this new thing if you had it. All this gets especially heightened if it’s something you’re predisposed to like — say, the same Kia Soul you’ve enjoyed for years.

The counterbalance is your cognitive mechanism. It might pipe up like a prudent accountant: Do I need this? Is this worth it? How does it fit in my budget?

A sale lands like the thumb that tips your mental scale toward buying.

In fact, the discount itself often registers as a win, delivering its own bolt of joy, says Jorge Barraza, a consumer psychologist at the University of Southern California.

“Not only are we getting the product,” he says, “but we’re also getting that reward that we discovered something, we’ve earned this extra thing.”

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