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The Science of Savings: New Study Reveals Our Physiological Reaction to Coupons


Your Brain on Coupons

Earlier this year, there was a considerable amount of consumer chatter as well as media interest around JCPenney’s decision to stop issuing coupons. We were interviewed for a Forbes article to talk about America’s love of coupons. In that article, a consumer said that she planned to take her home goods purchases to competitor Kohl's "since they (like me) ♥ coupons."

We are a very data-driven organization and have a lot of data to support that consumers have an emotional relationship to coupons. But the word “heart” in the article made us wonder: Do people experience a physical reaction to coupons? Do coupons affect our heart rates or other bodily changes?

We wanted to find out and worked with Dr. Paul J. Zak, a professor of neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University in Sothern California and a prolific author (as well as a frequent speaker at conferences, including several presentations at TED). He is particularly well known for his work with oxytocin, a hormone generated in our brains. His research links oxytocin to love, happiness and other positive social interactions. It appeared that no one—as far as we could tell—had researched the science of coupons. As a leader in our space, we believe we are the first to measure the physiological and psychological effects of coupons on the human body.


Dr. Zak designed an experiment with measures in place to monitor participants' heart rates, respiration, perspiration and hormone levels in the blood.

For the experiment, an online grocery shopping experience was created, complete with a “Get Coupons” button. When clicked, half of the participants received a digital coupon; the other half did not. The experiment was conducted in a controlled environment following scientific research methodologies, and was unable to alter, edit or influence the results.

Key Findings

We recently released the results of the first wave of the research, which Dr. Zak titled Your Brain on Coupons: Neurophysiology of Couponing. The findings were amazing – it showed those who received coupons had significantly higher levels of oxytocin and dramatically reduced stress.

Specifically, among those who received a coupon compared to those who did not, the study found:
Oxytocin levels were up 38%. This response is comparable to, or higher than, the increase from getting a gift or kissing your partner. It’s also higher than a bride’s oxytocin level during her wedding ceremony. 
Respiration rates fell 32%.
Heart rates dropped 5%.
Sweat levels on the hands were 20 times lower.
Participants were 11% happier.

In essence, the research showed that coupons make us happier and reduce stress.

Prior research has shown that brands and retailers benefit from the fact that coupon users shop more frequently and have bigger baskets sizes. Now, in addition to those benefits, we know that coupons actually physically affect our bodies; they make us feel good.


What does this research mean for marketers? Consider the following:
Coupons help build brand equity – The emotional and physical effects our bodies have when getting offers seemingly debunks the perception that couponing doesn’t build brand equity. Instead, the physiological impact likely creates a “halo effect” for the issuing brand, thereby building a positive brand image in the minds of the couponing consumers. 
Coupons don’t train consumers – We sometimes hear the concern that issuing coupons might be “training” consumers to only buy a product or shop a certain retailer based on coupon availability. The reaction to getting a coupon isn’t a learned response but, in fact, a physiological one that happens outside the control of the coupon receiver. Brands should worry less about whether they’re training consumers and, instead, recognize it as a valuable way to raise their brands’ perception.

Coupons activate all types of consumers – Participants in the study were everyday consumers and were not pre-screened for their interest in couponing. When exposed to coupons that provide convenience (think mobile coupons or social coupons), even a light or non-user of coupons would likely use them to buy a brand’s product or service and hence provide a brand-building impact. 


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