Retail Therapy: Does Sadness Mean Spending?

Down in the mouth? Why not pick up something nice for yourself?

It's a practice so common it has come to be called retail therapy. And in a recent study, researchers uncovered evidence of what shopaholics have known for years -- that people may be willing to spend more on themselves when they're feeling sad.

The study of 33 volunteers, to be published in the June 2008 edition of Psychological Science, found that feeling sad leads to self-centered thinking -- and this, in turn, can lead to a greater likelihood of dropping extra cash on something to make you feel better.

To reach their conclusions, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh showed volunteers either a video clip that showed grief following a tragic death or a neutral clip from a nature show. Afterward, participants had the chance to purchase an ordinary item -- a sporty water bottle. They found that people who'd watched the sad video clip offered an average of 300 percent more money for the item than those who had viewed the neutral clip.

"The key contribution our paper adds to the literature is that a high degree of self-focus can carry over to spending," says lead study author Cynthia Cryder, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.

Other psychological experts not directly involved with the research agree that the findings are interesting.

"Many people go shopping when they feel a little down or badly about themselves," says Nadine Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta. "Shopping can temporarily take people's minds off their troubles. Also, shopping for things we like can help us feel better about ourselves -- for example, clothes make us feel we look better."

This is not the first study to show a sadness-spending link.

"The two are related because they both deal with a way of filling up the emptiness inside that focuses on making their outside more attractive," says Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman, whose research on compulsive shopping goes back to the mid-1980s. She has since appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to discuss the phenomenon and penned the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica explaining the behavior.

"The way I discovered it was because I was treating a lot of eating disordered patients at the time, and found that after I cured their eating disorder, they developed a compulsive shopping disorder," she said.

But it may well be the first time that this connection has been studied in such a highly controlled experiment, notes study co-author Jennifer Lerner, a professor at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Still, psychological experts not affiliated with the study say more research may be needed to draw solid conclusions.

"Tightly controlled experimental studies like this one offer unimpeachable evidence for the idea that emotions or thoughts influence spending behavior," says Paul Duberstein, director of the Laboratory of Personality and Development at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. "Having said that, I am concerned that the authors' interpretation of the data is not spot-on."

Specifically, Duberstein says, showing a video clip about death may have led to thoughts and emotions about death -- feelings that are already known to increase the urge to spend.

Cryder responds by noting that the controlled nature of the study ensures that sadness was the main emotion at play. "What we have measured is certainly sadness," she says.

From Crying to Buying

Lieberman says there's a strong rationale for the connection between sadness and spending.

"People who are sad, miserable or depressed usually feel an emptiness inside," Lieberman says. "So they engage in behaviors that fill up this emptiness, such as eating too much, drinking too much or spending too much."

The increased buying only occurs for sad people who are self-focused, Kaslow said. "In addition, it is the first project to that actually looks at what sad people might do financially to secure a commodity -- that is, what buying decisions would they make. This is very relevant to the real world, where people have a bad day or time in their life, feel sad, and shop to feel better."

But Kaslow is also quick to point out that the findings most likely only apply to those people who are a bit down -- not those who are clinically depressed.

"When people are really depressed, they typically don't have the energy or inclination to shop," she says.

Those who subscribe to the healing powers of retail therapy may do well to remember that overindulgence can cause a sad situation of a different sort -- the kind that hits you right in the wallet.

"Sometimes people shop beyond their means when they are stressed out and the bills then just add to further stress," Kaslow says.

Lerner says that she hopes the research will help people make better decisions when it comes to emotions and spending.

"Consumers should make a habit of reevaluating the major purchases they've made to lower the probability that an emotional state caused their spending," she says.

"We would like to determine whether this purchasing actually makes them feel better. We suspect that even if it does make them feel better, it's only in the short term."