Train Your Brain To Only Buy Clothes That You’ll Actually Wear

Link Copied


Train Your Brain To Only Buy Clothes That You’ll Actually Wear

Words by Ms Shakaila Forbes-Bell

10 September 2022

Shopping is chemical warfare. When I stumbled upon this information as part of my work as a fashion psychologist (yes, that’s a real thing), I finally escaped the toxic relationship that I’d developed with my wardrobe. Every invitation to venture outside my home triggered the same sequence of tragic events. In an attempt to plan my outfit, I’d open my fragile wardrobe doors and be confronted with a sea of shoes and fabric lapping at my feet. And still, after assessing the vast landscape of my collection I always, without fail, uttered those five fateful words: “I have nothing to wear”.

How could someone with enough clothes to dress every inhabitant of a pre-Covid office building never have anything to wear? As with most things, the answer lies in heading straight to the source. Something was happening during the point of purchase that was leaving me with a wardrobe I had zero interest in. And I’m certainly not alone in experiencing this.

Research has revealed that, as of 2019, UK men own on average almost £12,000 of unworn clothing with women owning more than £22,000. Not only is this unsustainable, it’s also a waste of money and, quite frankly, with current the state of the economy, and the environment, none of us can afford to continue making such expensive mistakes.

One approach many people suggest is going cold turkey. The issue with that is that when you eventually start buying clothes again, because let's face it, you will, you’re likely to end up in the same vicious circle.

As a fashion psychologist, part of my job is to understand the why behind these choices. Time and time again, research has shown that emotional rather than rational motives drive us to shop. Rationality becomes even more scarce when you factor in the sheer volume of brands and fashion content that we consume on a daily basis.

When faced with limitless options, we experience a psychological impairment called “overchoice”, which inhibits us from making sound decisions. And if you don’t really know why you bought those jeans or those shoes or that fourth black hoodie in the first place, they’re not going to make much more sense once added to that heaving pile in your wardrobe.


Your brain, high on clothes

The concept of “retail therapy” has legitimate roots in cognitive psychology. Studies have shown that shopping makes us feel good because our brain reacts to novel stimuli, like a new outfit, for example, by releasing increased amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Often referred to as the “feel-good chemical”, dopamine influences feelings of reward and motivation. New things also activate the amygdala – the part of our brain that processes emotions and enhances our sensory processing. What’s more, MRI studies on the brain have found that our levels of dopamine increase in anticipation of going shopping. So this euphoric feeling is often not even associated with the thing you’re buying, but the act of buying in itself.

All that dopamine swishing around your body while shopping does make you happy, but it can also make you stupid. Research has revealed that dopamine cripples an area of our brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC), which is responsible for helping us to weigh up pros and cons and generally make good decisions. The temporary damage to our DPC stops us from adequately estimating the true value of a product, especially if the price looks good.

Increased dopamine levels are also accompanied by a rush of adrenaline – oh, and who can forget about that other pesky high, instant gratification? I wasn’t exaggerating when I said shopping is chemical warfare. With all of this happening beneath the surface, even someone with the very best intentions can end up making silly purchases.


Losses loom larger than gains

Another reason why it’s difficult to make smart shopping decisions is that we’re hardwired to be loss averse. Loss aversion is a concept discovered by psychologists Messrs Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and it’s perfectly explained by the saying “losses loom larger than gains”. When shopping, your Fear of Missing Out on a potentially cool piece will overpower your judgement of whether you’ll actually wear it in the first place. This kind of reactive shopping increases the likelihood of you experiencing buyer’s remorse – mental discomfort that occurs when you make a thoughtless shopping decision.


One rule to shopping success

So, how can you free yourself from this toxicity and train your brain to buy clothes you’ll actually wear? In my book, Big Dress Energy, I’ve utilised in-depth research in consumer, cognitive and fashion psychology to reveal that mindful shopping is the answer.

Being a mindful shopper means that you have engaged in a little introspection and checked in with yourself and your feelings before you shop. To mindfully shop means that you’re more present during the shopping experience and more cognizant of your decisions, which fosters a sense of control. If you’re not sure how to go about this, this simple rule will make things a whole lot easier.


The four-three-two-one rule

Four years:

Before buying something, ask yourself if you’ll still be wearing it in four years’ time. Mindless shopping purchases often tend to be fad items with no longevity that will find themselves gathering dust in your wardrobe sooner or later. Avoid this wastefulness by picturing your future self in the outfit. If that image doesn’t look right, walk away.

Three outfits or occasions:

If you can envisage yourself wearing the piece on at least three different occasions or with three different outfits, that’s a sure-fire way to tell if it has longevity.

Two deep-breaths:

Arguably the most important step, taking a couple of deep breaths before making a purchase decision will directly combat the chemical war you’re silently battling. All of that dopamine and adrenaline flooding your system makes you lose focus, and mindful shopping is all about being present. Taking a couple of deep breaths calms down your sympathetic nervous system, which controls your body’s involuntary responses and prevents you from being so reactive with your debit card.

One night’s sleep

Put the laptop or phone down, put the hanger back on the rail and lay your head down on that pillow. It’s the same rule I have when I’m about to send a risky text. After a good night’s sleep, that text looks very ridiculous – and the same might go for the coat you’re planning to buy. If you wake up and still can’t stop thinking about it, that should be a sign you’re making a good purchase.

As with any activity that fills you with a type of hedonistic joy, shopping should be practised responsibly. Practising mindfulness is the best way to curate a wardrobe containing things you actually want to wear and prevent you from uttering those five dreaded words ever again.