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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Retail therapy, we've all been there. The shocking Chartreuse shoes we just had to have and wore never. Why do you buy any old thing, even a garden hose just to feel better? This week's Science Out of a Box unpacks why we spend when we're unhappy.

(Soundbite of music)

A recent study suggests that if you're sad, you might pay a lot more for something, a lot, even something boring. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, there's a small room with some cubicles and computers. It looks like an office for temp workers or something, but this is a psychology lab and sometimes the people in this room feel really, really sad.

(Soundbite of movie "The Champ")

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's because they have to watch this clip from a movie called "The Champ." "The Champ is a boxer." He dies and a young boy weeps over his body.

(Soundbite of movie "The Champ")

Unidentified Child (Actor): (As T.J.) Why (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Character) T.J., please.

Unidentified Child: (As T.J.) I want Champ.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) T.J.

Unidentified Child: (As T.J.) I want Champ.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) T.J.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And this is known in psychology circles. It's, like, if you want to make people feel sad, show them this movie?

Ms. CYNTHIA CRYDER (Student): Yeah, it's one of kind of the classic methods of inducing sadness.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cynthia Cryder is a doctoral student. She studies how people's emotions affect how they spend money. She recently got a lot of young people, college students, to come in here. Some of them saw this sad movie and then had to write an essay.

Ms. CRYDER: And the essay asked them to talk about what it would be like in their own life if they had lost a mentor in a similar way. Meanwhile, another group of people had a very different experience.

(Soundbite of Great Barrier Reef Documentary)

Unidentified Man #2: Coral reefs may be hundreds of feet thick, many miles in length. They are by far the largest structures created by living creatures.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Their movie was kind of boring, neutral, a bunch of facts about coral reefs.

Ms. CRYDER: They've seen pictures, a kind of a beach, underwater scenes, pictures of the reef and fish floating through the sea.

(Soundbite of Great Barrier Reef Documentary)

Unidentified Man #2: Twenty feet down, we are on the reef that Columbus might've seen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so then do these people have to write an essay. too?

Ms. CRYDER: They did. They wrote about their daily activities. So they too were writing about themselves, but it was in a neutral way.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So they were just supposed to write, like, their daily routine?

Ms. CRYDER: Right. Mm hmm, exactly.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So here's the thing, all the people in this experiment were getting paid $10 for their time. Cynthia Cryder then told them they could use part of their paycheck to buy a water bottle, a really nice one.

Ms. CRYDER: An insulated sporty water bottle that people can, you know, use for years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She said, tell me how much you're willing to spend, and guess what?

Ms. CRYDER: 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it wasn't just a little more, people who felt neutral would pay, on average, 56 cents. People who felt sad paid an average of $2.11.

Ms. CRYDER: So an increase of almost 300 percent.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Just based on a movie they'd seen.

Ms. CRYDER: Yeah, a movie and an essay, yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, it's a little more complicated than that because when the researchers looked closer at the group of sad people, they realized something about the ones who paid more, they weren't just sad, they were sad and self-focused. Compared to the other sad people, their essays used a lot more words like I, me, and myself.

Ms. CRYDER: So self-focus is kind of a necessary condition for the influence of sadness to carry over to our decisions.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This result is being published in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science, and it raises some questions.

Mr. NICHOLAS EPLEY (Researcher): You know, one thing we don't know from the experiments is whether this is actually effective.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What do you mean?

Mr. EPLEY: We don't know whether the people who bought the water bottle actually were happier then. Did that wipe out the initial mood manipulation?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nicholas Epley is a researcher at the University of Chicago who's studied the psychology of things like spending tax rebates. He says it's just not clear yet what this study means for consumers.

Mr. EPLEY: 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? If you're a little tight on money, you probably want to put the keys to your car away when you're in a bad mood.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said, there's always other things you could try, like maybe the fridge.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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