Interviewee: Cynthia Cryder, Carnegie Mellon University
Getting the blues could cost you more of the green. Psychology researchers have found that feeling sad and bad about ourselves can drive us to spend more on purchases.
“There are these general hypotheses that if you’re just in a negative mood, that that negativity will generalize to everything. But we see that that’s not true with sadness,” explains Cynthia Cryder, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Sad people tend to feel negative about themselves and then increase value of things that aren’t associated with themselves like these commodities that they’re buying,” she says.
Cryder and colleagues offered volunteers ten dollars to participate in what were presented as separate experiments that were combined for convenience. Participants first watched either a sad or an unemotional video and wrote an essay designed to reveal how they were feeling about themselves. Then they were asked how much a sports water bottle was worth and to name their price to buy it.
“Sad people were willing to pay on average two dollars and 11 cents for the water bottle, and neutral people were willing to pay on average 56 cents for the water bottle. So sad people were willing to pay almost 300 percent more,” Cryder says.
She says it’s the combination of emotions that’s key. “It’s a combination of sadness and self-focus that leads to the increase in buying price,” she says. “What we think is happening here is that people who are both sad and self-focused feel pretty bad about themselves.”
She says that combination resists simple efforts to just get ourselves in a better mood. “Sadness tends to naturally increase self-focus, so its not just people who tend to be self-absorbed or anything like that driving this effect. It’s that sadness tends to increase self-focus, and to the extent that it does, that the combination increases buying prices.”
“So this work and a lot of other similar work suggests we often don’t know the types of influences that are affecting us with all types of decisions, including buying decisions,” she says.
Her advice: save those receipts and re-evaluate purchases a day or a week later. “One day or one week later we’ll be in a different state and may not be under the same influences we felt when we were purchasing. So by reevaluating, we can determine if we still value it at the amount that we paid and if not, we can return it,” she says
Could such effects have implications for the economy? Cryder points out that while the participants were put into a shopping situation that they didn’t seek out, the availability of online shopping may put us in similar situations even if we stay out of the stores.
“It’s hard to tell exactly how strong the implications are until we’re able to find out, do people put themselves in these shopping situations when they’re sad, or not?” she says. But, “once they’re in the situation, the emotions do have a strong effect. So it seems like to the extent that online shopping that people do in their own homes becomes more and more popular, that such a finding we know would have stronger implications in a broad economic sense.”
Cryder says other, similar experiments have shown that while sadness can make us overvalue new purchases, it can also make us undervalue our own stuff.
“People will actually sell items that they own and that are associated with themselves already, for less,” she explains. “So. I’ll pay more for new things, but I value the thing that I own less when I’m sad. So it’s all about things being associated with the self.”
She says these emotions can influence all types of decisions, from career choices to relationships.
“We use the spending paradigm in our lab because…that’s a clear demonstration of monetary differences so it’s easier to draw conclusions,” says Cryder. “But I think certainly in the real world, the implications go far beyond consumer decisions.”
This research was published in the June 2008 issue of Psychological Science, and was funded by the National Science Foundation.
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