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Sadness causes willingness to spend more, study finds

BOSTON – If you’re sad and shopping, watch your wallet: A new study shows people’s spending judgment goes out the window when they’re down, especially if they’re a bit self-absorbed.

Study participants who watched a sadness-inducing video clip offered to pay nearly four times more money to buy a water bottle than a group that watched an emotionally neutral clip.

The “misery is not miserly” phenomenon is well-known to psychologists, advertisers and personal shoppers, and it has been documented in a similar study in 2004.

The new study released today by researchers from four universities goes further, trying to answer whether temporary sadness alone can trigger spendthrift tendencies.

The study found a willingness to spend freely by sad people occurs mainly when their sadness triggers greater “self-focus.” That response was measured by counting how frequently study participants used references to “I,” “me,” “my” and “myself” in writing an essay about how a sad situation such as the one portrayed in the video would affect them personally.

The brief video was about the death of a boy’s mentor. Another group watched an emotionally neutral clip about the Great Barrier Reef, the vast coral reef system off Australia’s coast.

Thirty-three study subjects – young adults who responded to an advertisement offering $10 for participation – were offered the chance to trade some of the $10 to buy the bottle. The sad group offered to trade an average of $2.11, compared with 56 cents for the neutral group, according to the study by researchers from Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Pittsburgh universities.

Participants in the sad group typically insisted that the video’s emotional content didn’t affect their willingness to spend more – an incorrect assumption, said one of the study’s co-authors.

“This is a phenomenon that occurs without awareness,” Jennifer Lerner, a Harvard professor who studies emotion and decision making, said in a phone interview. “This is really different from the idea of retail therapy, where people are feeling negative and want to cheer themselves up by shopping. People have no idea this is going on.”

Edward Charlesworth, a Houston-based clinical psychologist who was not involved in the study, suggested the misery-is-not-miserly phenomenon is rooted in a culture that encourages people to buy to feel better.

“Certainly, the advertising industry knows that,” Charlesworth, citing as an example a 1970s McDonald’s fast-food jingle, “You deserve a break today.”

The study released today was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health. Besides Lerner, the other study authors were Carnegie Mellon’s Cynthia Cryder, Stanford’s James Gross and the University of Pittsburgh’s Ronald Dahl.