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From ‘Inside Out,’ Regulating Emotions to Enhance Self-Control

Impulsive shopping can be costly for people who are eager to escape emotional pain, which led researchers to seek out a strategy to increase self-control in spite of negative feelings.

They were inspired by the Pixar movie “Inside Out” to research how anthropomorphic thinking — thinking of emotions as people — influenced the experience of emotions and subsequent shopping behaviors.

The researchers said they suspected that people who anthropomorphized sadness would psychologically detach from this negative emotion and feel less sad, which would increase the chances of making wiser buying decisions.

To test this hypothesis, they asked participants to write about a time when they felt very sad, such as after the loss of someone close to them.

One group wrote about who sadness would be if it came to life as a person, while a second group wrote about what sadness would be like in terms of the emotional and affective impacts.

Both groups then rated their levels of sadness on a scale of one to seven.

The results showed that participants reported lower levels of sadness after they had written about the emotion as a person, according to the researchers.

People who had anthropomorphized sadness described the emotion in ways like “a little girl walking slowly with her head down,” “a pale person with no smile,” or “someone with grey hair and sunken eyes,” according to study author Dr. Li Yang of the University of Texas at Austin.

By doing this, “people start to think of an emotion as a person who is separate from themselves, which makes them feel more detached from the sadness,” she said.

The researchers also tested whether the results were the same when participants anthropomorphized the emotion of happiness. They discovered that levels of happiness were also lower for the group that described the emotion as a person.

“It’s probably not wise to apply this strategy for positive emotions because we do not want to minimize these good feelings,” Yang said.

The researchers then explored whether decreased sadness led to better self-control when making decisions about what to buy.

Like the first experiment, participants wrote about sad experiences, then one group anthropomorphized sadness by writing about it as a person. Next, the researchers asked people in both groups to select a side dish to accompany a lunch entrée, and the choices were cheesecake or a salad. The participants who had anthropomorphized sadness were more likely to choose the salad — the healthier option that required more self-control.

Then they repeated the experiment with a different consumption choice: A computer optimized for productivity versus a computer optimized for entertainment. This time, the participants thought about sadness as a person before encountering a specific sad event: Throwing away an old laptop.

Again, the participants who anthropomorphized sadness were more likely to select the practical computer option rather than the indulgent one.

“Our study suggests that anthropomorphizing sadness may be a new way to regulate this emotion,” Yang said. “Activating this mindset is a way to help people feel better and resist temptations that may not benefit them in the long-term.”

The study was published  in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Source: Society for Consumer Psychology

From ‘Inside Out,’ Regulating Emotions to Enhance Self-Control

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). From ‘Inside Out,’ Regulating Emotions to Enhance Self-Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 Oct 2019 (Originally: 13 Oct 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 13 Oct 2019
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