Pandemic Purchases Part 1: How increased online shopping decreases the pain of paying

Cowry Authors • 4 min read


How our buying behaviours have shifted as a result of COVID-19?



This article is part 1 of the Pandemic Purchasing Series, where we shed light on how buying behaviours have shifted as a result of COVID-19 and the national lockdowns. With these significant changes in our environment, our behaviours have changed, and there are a number of psychological principles being used to nudge customers into buying more products.


Over the last decade, online shopping has become more and more accessible. Through the rise of the smartphone, Apple Pay, and affordable tech, people can buy almost anything they want at a click of a button. However, demand for online shopping has surged dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic with physical stores being forced to close. Over this period:

· E-Commerce provider Edge by Ascential have estimated that the pandemic has added £5.3bn to the UK’s E-Commerce Sector, with £3 in every £10 spent in the UK economy now spent online.

· Businesses have been able to use this online retail to survive. This can be seen in the Barclays Survive and Thrive Report, where 15% of all UK companies have created roles specifically to cater for increased digital sales.

· More than 1 in 4 (26%) retailers feel that the pandemic has accelerated the technological revolution in retail.

Because we are now so far removed from the exchange of money for goods and services, is this negatively impacting our spending behaviour? This post explores how an increased psychological distance between person and transaction can reduce the pain we feel when we hand over our cash, and how this can lead to more impulsive purchasing.

The Psychology Behind the Pain of Paying

As you may know, it can often feel uncomfortable to hand over your hard-earned money. This is what is called the pain of paying. Specifically, studies in psychology and neurology have identified that humans feel pain when they part with cash. In one study, they discovered that paying for something increases insula activity in the brain, a chemical that is associated with other psychological or physical pain. In other words, it’s as if you are being wounded by the purchase. This concept ties into the behavioural principle of Loss Aversion, where humans feel losses almost two times more than equivalent gains.

Further research has also highlighted that this pain when paying decreases when customers distance themselves from a transaction. For instance, people feel less pain when they pay by bank card, contactless, or by Apple Pay, and even less when they are not in the store and pay online. Because these transactions are becoming less visible or tangible, with this ‘de-coupling’ or purchase and product reducing the associated friction that comes with the pain of paying.



In sum, the ability to pay for goods and services is always getting easier, and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic shift in where and how we make payments. Now that more purchases are being made online, the increase distance from person to purchase reduces friction and can lead to more impulsive purchases being made on items which customers may not desire when delivered, and may not be able to afford financially.

While it is agreed that businesses want to make payments as efficient as possible for their customers, there needs to be a balance between supplying goods and services customers need, and incentivising impulsive behaviour. This leads to a wider debate on whether positive friction could or should be used in online purchases, to ensure that customers are buying what they really want, and can really afford.


· Barclays Corporate (2020). Survive and thrive: how the UK’s retailers are adapting to the ‘new normal’. Available at:

· Zellermayer, O. (1996). The pain of paying. (Doctoral dissertation). Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

· Rick, S. I. (2018). Tightwads and spendthrifts: An interdisciplinary review. Financial Planning Review, 1(1–2), e1010. Retrieved from

· Prelec, D., & Loewenstein, G. (1998). The red and the black: Mental accounting of savings and debt. Marketing Science, 17(1), 4–28.

· Knutson, B., Rick, S., Wimmer, G.E., Prelec, D. and Loewenstein, G., 2007. Neural predictors of purchases. Neuron, 53(1), pp.147–156














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