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Retail Therapy, Sadness and Spending: The Study Behind the Story

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

Cynthia E. Cryder , a graduate student over at Carnegie Mellon University and a bunch of other psychological researchers have an article in press in Psychological Science (the journal of the American Psychological Society) called Misery is not Miserly: Sad and Self-Focused Individuals Spend More which explores the relationship between sad mood, self-focused attention and willingness to spend money. This little (dense, scientific) journal article which hasn’t even been published yet has generated a number of stories across the health-based Internet today on the basis of its ability to provide a foundation for understanding the "retail therapy" phenomena; that tendency to go shopping when you’re feeling down in the dumps.

Here’s the article in a nutshell. Ms. Cryder and company paid 33 people ten dollars each to be study participants. They then randomly assigned subjects into subgroups and had half sit through a downer of a four minute movie about a kid’s mentor dying, while the other half got to watch a nature documentary about the Great Barrier Reef. Following the movie, everyone was asked to write about themselves. Subjects in the negative mood induction group were asked to write about what it would be like if they were to lose someone close to them, while the documentary subjects were simply asked to write about their daily routine. Finally, subjects were asked to put a price on a fancy water bottle that the researchers had for sale (subjects could actually buy the bottle and take it home if they liked but that was not required of them). Researchers recorded how much subjects were willing to pay for the bottle and then compared the average price each group was willing to pay to see if there were differences. The researchers also made measurements of just how emotional and just how self-focused people were after watching their respective movies and writing about themselves.

The study findings were twofold. First, the folks who sat through the death movie offered more than the folks who saw the fish movie. Second, there was a relationship between how much subjects were willing to spend, which movie they sat through, and how self-focused their writing samples were judged to be. Essentially, what movie you watched and how self-focused you became after writing about yourself had no effect on how much people were willing to pay for the water bottle except in the one case where someone both watched the death movie and also became very self-focused upon writing about themselves. Those people were willing to pay a lot more for the bottle than everyone else.

Ms. Cryder and company explain their results with reference to a particular vision of self-esteem theory that goes all the way back to the seminal psychologist William James . According to James, self-esteem is not limited or bounded by the edges of a person’s mind or body, but rather extends outwards to encompass all that they are related to or "own" in some way. If you lose something or someone, that loss causes a diminishment of the self; a loss of part of yourself, and if you buy something or get into a relationship with someone new that person becomes a part of you. Correspondingly, if you lose a part of yourself, you can regain part of what you’ve lost by buying or otherwise incorporating back into yourself new objects of value.

What Ms. Cryder and company think happened, is that they caused some of their subjects to focus on a personal loss, which caused them to panic a little and experience a diminishment of their self-esteem, possibly even a diminishment of their actual self-concept which shrinks when losses occur. In order to alleviate that little panic feeling of being diminished, these people were motivated to buy something and not just any something. They wanted to buy something expensive, precisely because by consuming something expensive, they are able to fill up their self-esteem and push their mood back up towards normal. That people take the loss personally is vital to this effect. If you think about someone else’s’ loss, you don’t experience any self-esteem diminishment, and correspondingly, you experience no motivation to boost your self-esteem by swallowing something valuable. It’s a reasonable explanation, I think, but not one that is news to life insurance salesmen.

It’s important to keep this finding in perspective. This result doesn’t tell us anything about Major Depression , for instance. None of the subjects in the study would have met criteria for a clinical disorder. The mood state that the researchers were able to create is at best a transient stressful event. The closest event in real life that might match what was done here would be the sort of depressing anniversary reactions that people have sometimes on anniversaries of sad events. People with Major Depression are generally focused on personal failures, for sure, but they also tend to be low enough energy to not be able to do much about it. I would guess that this effect is delicate. In order for it to work, a person has to be self-focused and down in the dumps but not so down in the dumps that they have come to believe (as so many people with Major Depression have come to believe) that no amount of therapy can have any effect. You have to be still willing to believe that redemption is possible.

One of the beautiful things about research like this is that it gets you thinking about how things work. What is the motivation behind buying things when you’re feeling down in the dumps? And how general is the finding itself if you keep your interpretation strictly limited to only apply to non-depressed people. Here are some ideas that have come into my mind for possible follow-up studies.

I somehow doubt that this finding that self-focused, mildly depressed people overvalue retail goods is limited to physical retail goods. What the authors are saying is that such people are motivated to consume high value items and in so doing, take those items into their sense of self so that they can share in the high value. I would imagine that the same people who want to pay more for the bottle would also be happy to consume other varieties of high value item, such as to seek out sexual relations with an attractive partner. Possibly also, the same people would be willing to give more to charities that happened to hit them up at that moment, because giving money to charity would still work to enhance the self-esteem by building up the idea that they are a good and giving person within their self-esteem. Where I’m going is to suggest that the thing that is consumed and taken into the self need not be a physical thing. It could also be an idea.

I wonder if the authors are being too narrow in their interpretation of why buying stuff is important for self-focused down in the dumps people. The opportunity to buy something when you’re feeling low is more than just an opportunity to acquire something and ally yourself with that thing. It could also be an opportunity to distract yourself from your self-focus and focus instead on the external thing you’re buying. We call this distraction, and distraction is a powerful method for coping with emotional discomfort. By suggesting that distraction might be driving the desire to pay more for something, I’m not challenging the results in any way. Instead, I’m challenging the interpretation. It may not be that anyone’s ego needs building up so much as an irritation (e.g., the self-focus on personal loss) needs to be removed.

A final interesting thought I’ve got thinking about this stuff has to do with supply and demand and the public versus private dimension of value. There are some things in the world that are well known and that most people would like to have, such as gold jewelery, perhaps. Then there are things that only a few people care about, like jazz records. If someone wants to buy something in order to take it into themselves so as to enhance their self-esteem, would it make a difference if that thing was wanted by many people and they could show it off and elicit oohs and ahhs, or if that thing was something that had no practical value to anyone other than yourself. If something had no value to you whatsoever under normal circumstances, would you become motivated to invest that thing with value upon finding yourself down and self-focused? I don’t have any answers, but thinking about questions like these is rewarding in itself; at least for psychology geeks like myself.

Thoughts?

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