Sadness Spurs Spending, Experiment Shows

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Credit card in hand. i

Sad spending can be dangerous. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Credit card in hand.

Sad spending can be dangerous.

iStockphoto.com

If you're feeling blue, you might want to think twice before you head out for a little shopping.

That's because research shows sad people are willing to pay significantly more money for everyday items such as a water bottle.

Cynthia Cryder, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, recently explored the issue of emotion and spending in a simple experiment. She got some young people to come into the psychology lab, then showed film clips.

Manipulating Emotions

For one group, she played a teary scene, "one of the classic methods of inducing sadness," says Cryder. She chose a clip from the 1979 movie The Champ, in which a boy weeps inconsolably over his dead father's body.

Afterward, participants were asked to write an essay about what it would be like "if they had lost a mentor in a similar way," Cryder says.

Another group saw a clip from a more emotionally neutral movie: a National Geographic documentary about the Great Barrier Reef. It features a beach, underwater scenes and shots of the reef and fish. The essay assignment for these viewers was to write about their daily routine.

Study participants were paid $10 for their time. Cryder told them they could use part of the money to buy a really nice water bottle. She asked how much they'd be willing to spend.

Sadness Induces Spending

It turns out, Cryder says, "the people in our study who are induced to feel sad are willing to pay more for the same item than are people who feel neutral."

It wasn't just a little more. Those who watched the documentary scenes paid an average of 56 cents. Those who watched the tearjerker paid an average of $2.11.

When Cryder and her study co-authors looked closely at the people who watched the sad scene, they realized something. Their essays were more self-focused, containing more words such as "I," "me" and "myself."

Self-focus is "a necessary condition for the influence of sadness to carry over to our decisions," Cryder says.

The findings will appear in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The study builds on work by Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University, who has been studying how emotions influence economic transactions. People deny that watching a sad movie affects their spending decisions, Lerner has found, suggesting no conscious awareness.

Symptom or Cure?

Other experts say the study raises some fascinating new questions. Nicholas Epley, a researcher at the University of Chicago who has looked at the psychology of spending tax rebates, says the experiment doesn't show whether this buying behavior is an effective mood enhancer for sadness.

"We don't know if people who bought the water bottle actually were happier then," Epley says. "Did that wipe out the initial mood manipulation?"

It's not yet clear what this study means for consumers, Epley says. "Do you not get in your car and go to the mall when you're sad? Or do you especially go to the mall when you're sad?"

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