Sadness Can Result in Overspending

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Research studies have shown that there is a strong connection between feelings of sadness and the urge to overspend.

Research studies have shown that there is a strong connection between feelings of sadness and the urge to overspend. It may seem weird but, truth is, it is not uncommon. People have a tendency to spend more money on stuff that they otherwise wouldn’t spend for if they weren’t sad.

Psychological Science published in June 2008 a study conducted by Jennifer Lerner, a Harvard University psychologist. According to the publication, Lerner and some of her colleagues gave the participants $10 each. The participants were divided into two groups. One group was shown a tearjerker movie clip from a 1979 film – The Champ. The other group watched a video about the Great Barrier. After the video showing, all the participants were given a chance to buy a “sporty” water bottle.

The group that watched The Champ was willing to buy a water bottle four times the price than what the other group would spend-- $2.11 as against 56 cents.

A study titled “Misery is Not Miserly” deals with the facts about emotional spending, which investigates why sadness induces splurging. It was found out that mere sadness alone is not enough to affect people’s spending habits. When the sad person experiences what the authors of this study calls “self-focus,” a state often triggered by sadness, that’s the time the individual gets most negatively affected. This study shows that people who are in the self-focus state frequently used me, myself, and I when they were tasked to write something. This shows that sadness, combined with self-focus makes individuals dwell on their shortcomings. On an unconscious level, they feel devaluated; as a result, there is an unconscious desire to acquire things which they hope will increase their self-worth.

Up to now, it is still undetermined whether spending actually reduces feelings of sadness. Even if it does, feeling better could come at a substantial price.

Lerner says that “the amount of money implicated is not trivial.” She adds, “This is not just an ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting?’ finding. There are potentially massive implications.”

Currently, Americans spend 70 percent of their income on consumer services and goods. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the past 25 years, consumer spending rates have increased steadily; and according to Federal Reserve Board the consumer debt in the United States now tops $2.5 trillion and counting.

This state of sadness can be easily exploited by marketers and advertisers, especially because there can be a snowball effect.

“Imagine some advertiser has conveyed to you that getting certain products may make you feel better,” says Ronald Dahl, a co-author of “Misery is not Miserly” study. “Then bills come due and you don’t feel better. You actually feel worse, because you’re now further in debt. That sadness then makes you willing to pay more.”

This “negative spiral,” according to Dahl, takes its roots from the cultural myth that buying things for oneself can make one happy. As research study published in March 2008 in Science, showed that people spend money on others, they feel happier than when they spend it on themselves.

One good way to address this sadness-spending effect, is to teach people starting at a young age that the path to personal fulfillment lies in generosity and altruism, says Dahl. That way, feelings of devaluation brought about by sadness may spur a desire to help out others. This may avoid the downward spiral brought on by indulging oneself.

“It means shifting away from self-focus toward being generous, giving to others—and discovering the rewards in real emotional terms,”

1 comment

Janet Hunt
Posted on Apr 8, 2010