How Sadness Can Turn You Into a Shopaholic

But outright depression may cause you to spend less at the mall.


Does the lack of a compelling love interest have you down this Valentine's Day? Well, you'd better hold on to your wallet. A new study released this week links even momentary sadness with increased spending. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, and Stanford universities, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical School found that people feeling sad and introspective spend more money to acquire the same commodities than those in a neutral emotional state.

In the experiment, 33 participants ages 18 to 30 were given $10 for their participation and then asked to watch either a sad video clip about the death of a boy's mentor or a neutral video clip about the Great Barrier Reef and write a short essay about themselves. Afterward, participants were offered an opportunity to buy an insulated sports water bottle at various prices. Participants randomly assigned to the sad condition offered almost 300 percent more money to buy the product than neutral participants, $2.11, versus 56 cents for the neutral group, a phenomena the scientists are calling the "misery is not miserly effect." However, the participants in the sadness condition also insisted that the emotional content of the film did not affect their spending.

The researchers explain that dwelling on a sad event causes you to devalue your sense of self and your current possessions. This can be followed by a desire to enhance yourself by acquiring high-priced material goods. The affect of sadness on spending behavior is likely to be more pronounced in real-life negative situations than that of the simulated sadness in the experiment, the scientists note. James Gross, an associate professor at Stanford and coauthor of the team's paper, "Misery Is Not Miserly: Sad and Self-Focused Individuals Spend More," explains why. Excerpts follow:

Why don't people realize that sadness is influencing their spending?
When we feel sad and self-focused, we feel we are freely choosing to go out and buy a bunch of stuff, but there may be other things that are shaping our behavior.... In psychology, we are surprised by how much of what happens in our brain is taking place outside of awareness. Retail therapy is what people think of when people think of this finding.

Do depressed people buy more?
Part of what's happening when people are depressed is they become sad and self-focused and that may lead them to shop and do other things. But depressed people may be so debilitated that they don't buy at all.

If sadness makes you spend more money, might becoming happier cause you to spend less?
It's possible that would decrease the value of buying new stuff. As you become more happy with yourself, it may have the effect of diminishing your motivation to buy things.

The study didn't show any difference in spending between males and females. Might there be some in the real world?
In the real world, men might have many ways to make themselves feel better that don't involve purchasing, like watching TV or engaging in physical activities.

If something sad happens to you in this down economy, what can you do to prevent overspending?
It's not just that you are becoming sad, but you are becoming more self-focused. It's really the joint influence of sadness and self-focus that is causing overspending. We need to find ways of helping people not become self-focused as they become sad. You can be sad without feeling that the things that are making you sad are making you a less worthwhile person. If you are feeling sad and self-focused and wanting to enhance yourself, buying or consuming is only one path to enhancing yourself. Another is social support.