Depressed? Don't Go to the Mall

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Next time you're down in the doldrums, you might want to avoid the mall. People who are sad tend to be willing to pay more for things — it's like going to the grocery store on an empty stomach — according to research into financial decision-making.

In a recent experiment one group of people was shown a sad video clip about the death of a boy's mentor, while another group viewed a non-emotional clip about the Great Barrier Reef. Researchers then produced an insulated water bottle and asked how much of the $10 the participants were getting paid they'd be willing to give up in exchange for the bottle. People who had seen the Great Barrier Reef video agreed to pay on average about 50 cents. People in the group that had been primed to feel sad offered up four times that price, more than $2 on average — but were unaware that the video had any impact on their spending. The experiment, which was conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh, will be published in the June issue of Psychological Science

Why are sad people such big spenders? One idea is that feeling blue causes people to have a devalued sense of self, so spending more money on a new object — which people may identify, in a way, as an extension of themselves — starts to undo that deflation. "People want to value themselves, and this is one way to do it," says Cynthia Cryder, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the study's authors. That same emotional hunger may help to explain other costly behaviors, according to the authors, like aggressively playing the stock market or prowling for a new romance. The takeaway, especially for anyone on a budget: "If you're sad, maybe you should seek out something other than shopping," says Cryder. "A new book to read, a new friendship. Something that's novel and attractive to fill the need you're seeking to fill."

But there might be another way, too. Part of the study revealed that there seems to be a process mediating the link between sadness and spending. That process is self-focus. Being sad and focusing one's thoughts inwardly usually go hand in hand. The researchers came up with a way to tease the two apart and found that people who are sad, but not self-focused don't spend as much. To break the link, you might, therefore, intentionally try to avoid self-focusing when you're sad simply by thinking of other people. "You could try to think about others by rehearsing a series of sentences that involve others as the subject," says Cryder. "That makes sense to me as a researcher." Or you might just call a friend, and instead of suggesting a trip to the mall, ask how her day is.