Recently, in brave defiance of the credit crunch and the horrible economic times that everyone insists we’re under, I decided to take a bit of money from my savings account and buy myself a new digital camera as a birthday gift. I’ve wanted one for a while, and a springtime holiday (also planned well before the current troubles) will offer some amazing scenery. Kitten in an Amazon box Creative commons image Credit: HK-DMZ under CC-BY-NC-SA licence Is there no end to what Amazon can deliver you?

I’ve shopped online for well over a decade now, and it’s the first place I go to find out the best deals. So like millions of people every day, I’ll do something that was unthinkable fifteen years ago: I’ll go online to shop.

But in the last few years, the refinement of price comparison sites has added a new dimension to going online. In a few clicks, and in one easy-to-read tabular view, we can easily find out the best price for almost any product or service that’s offered for sale on the net. Want to find the cheapest price for that camera? Or what about that holiday? Shopping for a new power company? Which one will be the cheapest… just click and see. Even that one-stop favourite Google has a built-in price comparison engine now.

Price comparison sites tap into one of our most basic human instincts: the thrill of the hunt. The feelings generated when shopping tap into these primal human urges. After all, it’s an intellectual and emotional challenge to chase out the prey, even if that prey is only a camera or a juice machine.

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe I’m too close to my primal urges, but sometimes I wonder if price comparison sites just make the whole thing a bit too easy. As my family from the American south might say, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Or is it?

The seemingly infinite amounts of information available on the net means that there’s no way we could work through all of the data needed to make sense of it and make the right decision. So the reason it seems so easy is that computers are taking over something our brain is used to doing.

Information processing theory is one way that cognitive psychologists have developed to explain how people make sense of the world around them. Our brains are roughly analogous to a computer, this perspective goes, and the computer takes in data from all of our senses and does the things computers do to data: puts like things in categories, analyses relationships between data points, chunks it into pieces, and discards what it can’t make sense of.

If you’ve ever gotten a bit of sensory overload when confronted with a somewhat crazy scene, you’ll have experienced one aspect that these psychologists are talking about.

price comparison sites have tried to replicate some of the social aspects of buying

And of course, though price is usually what people think of when they start shopping, there are other things to consider when buying. A lot of price comparison sites have tried to replicate some of the social aspects of buying by allowing users to rate the merchants in the transaction. That way, you can learn from other people’s experiences without having to replicate them yourself.

On the high street, you wouldn’t walk into a shop that looked derelict; but on the net, anyone can put up a nice looking website. With ratings easily visible on the price comparison rankings, you can see whether a good price also represents a good value purchase—as there’s no doubt you’d want to avoid a place that charges exorbitant shipping fees, takes ages to fulfill your order, or is difficult to work with.

So all told, price comparison sites can give you the best of the net by processing tremendous amounts of information for you. Perhaps most importantly, though, they allow you to use your superior human intelligence to focus on the things that really matter. Things like what the difference is between an “Online Only” and a “Web Plus” tariff from your power company. Unfortunately, even the best computers can’t figure that one out.

Listen to this blog post on our Money & Management podcast.

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