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Warning: feelings of sadness may be followed by empty wallet

According to a new study by researchers from Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh, and reported on by CNN; people who are sad spend more money. The study involved thirty-three participants, each of which was asked to watch a video and then make a pricing decision. Half of subjects watched a video clip which was sad, about a death of someone’s mother; the other half watched a “neutral” clip, about the Great Barrier Reef. After watching the video, the participants were required to write an essay response to the video and then asked if they wanted to trade a portion of the fee they were paid to do the study, in exchange for a water bottle. The group that watched the sad video reportedly paid an average of 3.7 times as much for the water bottle than the participants that watched the “neutral” video.

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.

So what does this mean? Generally, what this research is telling us is that when we encounter a sad situation that truly relates to us, we will spend more money. In fact, this study indicates that on a sad day we will spend more money for the things we would buy any other day at a lower price. The researchers are also quick to point out that this type of buying behavior is subconscious, differing from the so-called “retail therapy”; where a person consciously makes the decision to buy something to make themselves feel better.

Obviously, this research probably doesn’t fit everyone’s buying behavior, but I have noticed that when I’m having a truly sad, self-reflective day, and I have to go buy groceries or some other necessity, I just don’t care too much how much things cost. On these days, if I’m going to the store to buy milk, I’ll just grab the first container of milk and leave. However, on normal day when I’m not sad, I would be more likely to shop around, maybe buy the cheaper store brands of milk or go to a different store to see if the milk is cheaper there.

Warning: feelings of sadness may be followed by empty wallet

Jennifer Bechdel

Jennifer Bechdel, MBA is a freelance and technical writer, as well as a marketing consultant. She focuses on workplace issues, stress, and unemployment topics.

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APA Reference
Bechdel, J. (2018). Warning: feelings of sadness may be followed by empty wallet. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Feb 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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