Sadness Makes You Spend More

As the American Psychiatric Association prepares the fifth edition of the DSM—their official guide to what’s making you insane in the membrane—there’s some debate on whether to include compulsive shopping as a disorder, writes Melissa Healy in the Los Angeles Times:

Is [it] a biologically driven disease of the brain, a learned habit run amok, an addiction in its own right or a symptom of the other dysfunctions—most notably depression—that so often accompany it?

While the professionals discuss the matter, Healy points out something that may have more practical benefit to you: a recent study showed sad test subjects were willing to spend four times as much on a nonessential item (a water bottle) than non-sad subjects.

A theory that sadness might spur excess spending was neatly demonstrated in an experiment conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh and published in the June issue of Psychological Science.

Thirty-three subjects were offered $10 to participate in a study and divided into two groups: one that listened to a sad story and wrote an introspective essay about it and another that listened to an emotionally neutral story, then detailed their day’s activities.

Afterward, subjects in each group were offered the chance to buy a sporty insulated water bottle using some of their $10 payment and asked to state the price they would be willing to pay to buy it. The difference — by all appearances dictated solely by differing emotional states — was startling: Subjects in the sad-story group were prepared to pay almost four times as much to acquire the snappy water bottle as those who had entered the market in a neutral emotional state.

Maybe going shopping when you feel down is like going to the supermarket on an empty stomach—a really bad idea.

“Is compulsive buying a disorder?” [Seattle Times]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. B says:

    Sad makes you cry, crying makes you thirsty. I don’t think the water bottle was necessarily non-essential.

  2. The_IT_Crone says:

    My ex, his parents and his only sibling (brother) are all compulsive shoppers. His aunt and uncles are junk collectors. I’m willing to think that it might be hereditary, but more of a “hoarding” complex. The need to take in as much stuff and collecting it could be a nesting instinct.

    I also don’t think that the water bottle was a good example. It’s kind of like asking someone that has been stranded in the desert for 2 days how much they’d pay for a bottle of water. It doesn’t make them a compulsive shopper, just thirsty.

  3. Dabigkid says:

    Goddammit, everything to them is a fucking disorder.

  4. feralparakeet says:

    So in other words, the solution to the credit crisis is to lower unemployment. If we weren’t all broke and miserable, we wouldn’t be so tempted to slap down a card to make ourselves feel better, right?

  5. Colage says:

    Retailers should plaster their stores with Darfur posters then – they get the “awareness” shoppers plus people will spend up to 4x as much!

  6. I feel a persistent need to buy a 1080p projector and a $5000 stereo, even though I’m a grad student who has to take out some loans to pay to the bills. Does that mean I’m sad?

  7. dragonfire81 says:

    I would say our materialistic society is to blame. Remember, most advertising and marketing is based around the apparent notion that we can achieve some kind of emotional and/or spiritual fulfillment by purchasing whatever product is being promoted.

    So I can understand how some sad people might get taken in by this and make purchases simply because they feel that having some shiny new stuff will fill some kind of void in their life. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.

  8. jonworld says:

    I’ve always thought this was pretty obvious. If people’s social and emotional needs/wants aren’t met, they’ll become very materialistic.

  9. Aristeia says:

    Disorder or not, I can personally attest to the fact that being sad or depressed can spur the desire to buy things.

    Getting a new item, no matter how trivial, brings some degree of joy, false or consumerist (hah) though it may be. A few years back, I was in a bad way, and during that period of time, I bought several thousand dollars worth of videogames and dvds.

    Most of those videogames I never beat or picked up again past the first week. (the dvds lasted longer, heh. i still watch a lot of those. but not smallville. ugh.)

    Part of it was just wanting to distract myself. The other part was seeking that small thrill of getting something new.

    Nowadays, I buy way less games and movies, gadgets, etc. Sure, I still spend when I want things, but I find myself more content with what I have, and that “thrill” of getting something new is less substantial relative to how I feel about normal things.

    So, yeah. I’m not surprised by these findings.

    To those of you poo-pooing it, really think about it. Did your parents never get you something when you were feeling down? Did you never get your kids a toy to perk them up?

    People seek toys to make themselves happier, no matter what age.

  10. jonworld says:

    @Dabigkid: I agree completely. People are different. As Americans we, for the most part, pride ourselves on diversity and individuality. Now, every time someone’s behavior, appearance, or way-of-thinking differs from the “norm”, it is immediately dismissed as some kind of goddamn “disorder” and they make pills for it.

  11. Orv says:

    Seems to me there might be an evolutionary basis for this. Just like we get a mental reward (in the form of pleasure) for eating or procreating, it’s possible that our brains evolved to encourage us to acquire stuff that may be useful. Now we live in an age where there are unhealthy amounts of food and stuff available for the taking, and as a result that instinct actually works against us.

  12. thelushie says:

    When I am sad and depressed, I stay the hell away from the mall. It isn’t called “retail therapy” for nothing.

    @Michael Belisle: It is just another symptom of “Grad student disorder”. Others include using terms like “cohort” and scoping out resturants for their wireless access.

  13. battra92 says:

    I used to be a bad compulsive shopper. For me it was because I felt buying something was like I had accomplished something. To me having X amount of DVDs meant I was accomplished at something or I had done something with my life, which at the time was pretty crappy as I was in college working two jobs with zero social life and coming off a bad breakup.

    So yeah, depression will trigger shopping for some. I don’t blame any disorder or disease, it’s just an activity to do.

  14. battra92 says:

    @Aristeia: Sounds very much like my story. I think mentioning how your parents buying toys or something as a reward makes sense. My folks were never touchy feely, talk about your feelings people. If they felt I needed cheering up, I got to go to McDonalds or they bought me some baseball cards. It took a long time to break that “toys == happiness” mindset I got into as a kid.

    My brother never got out of it and is, I think, a compulsive spender/hoarder.

  15. CG72 says:

    Perhaps being sad/depressed just makes the shopper oblivious to the price…Instead of going down the street to pick up an item cheaper or pondering need, it’s like “oh just give it to me…who cares?”

  16. Triborough says:

    And I am sure that the American Psychiatric Association would like you if you have the problem to consult one of their members, for a fee of course, so they can afford to buy the new edition of their book when it comes out.

  17. Roclawzi says:

    Yet another million dollars worth of experts’ time to tell us all that water’s wet. Yes, depression spurs spending, it’s empowering, it’s fulfilling, and some people just spend their way out of a funk because it gives them a chance to be in control, and to get their way.

    Depression from a lack of control? The customer is always right! Depression from low self esteem? Here’s your receipt, sir. Thank you very much. Oh, that looks fantastic on you! Depression from being broke…well, that’s your spouse’s problem!

    Every time I see one of these ridiculously obvious “official” opinions, I die a little bit inside because all it’s doing is spinning wheels and waiting for the road to be built.

    Wasteful spending has always been a cornerstone of depression. It was one of the first medications for it, marketed under the name “Spenditall”. And it’s probably the most divisive factor between couples as it just masks what’s really wrong inside, and adds another point of contention.

  18. shorty63136 says:

    I knew there was a reason I spent so much time at the clearance racks at Target. I must be manically depressed.

    (Don’t hate on the clearance racks – especially in the really good Targets. Give it 3 or 4 weeks from regular price and it’s on the rack for 75% off.)

  19. fizzyg says:

    @Dabigkid: I’m not sure that it’s seriously under debate as a separate disorder. I’m not ‘that kind’ of psychologist, but I’ve read the working group paper on potential changes for the next edition of the DSM and it just doesn’t get that silly/picky. I could possibly see compulsive/addictive behaviors being expanded, but not to the extent of having a separate section of ‘compulsive shopping’. In the end, though, a disorder is simply a way to code for something that had a common appearance and treatment.

  20. fizzyg says:

    href=”#c7292698″>Roclawzi: So do you feel that spending does actually end up making people feel fulfilled or empowered? Is this effect long-lasting? If so, then there’s your treatment for depression right there.

    I’m guessing it’s probably not that easy.

  21. Roclawzi says:

    It’s temporary, and usually adds the stress of money problems and shame over wastefulness to the causes of depression.

    But if it’s a minor case of the blues, plenty of people get over it with spending. Then again, some people just go get drunk and that works for them. Everyone has their little ways for the little things.

    But real depression is a big thing. :/

  22. ARP says:

    @battra92: As others have said, our consumerist (double ha!)has taught us that having things= sucess and shopping=patriotism so its perfectly natural to equate things with accomplishments. And that’s how they get us. You don’t need to go to college, read more, travel more, try new things, understand other cultures,etc. You just need to buy X. If you don’t buy X, you’re not sucessful and you’ve let the terrorists win.

  23. battra92 says:

    @ARP: I wouldn’t say it’s patriotism, nor do I ever recall anyone ever really saying shop just for the sake of patriotism. I think it was more saying don’t horde and not leave your house.

    I don’t blame anyone, not even society. It just has to do with human nature. We see owning stuff as putting us above animals.

    @Roclawzi: But real depression is a big thing. :/

    That it is, my friend, that it is.

    Lonliness especially is a good cause for people to shop. Going to a mall or Walmart is a surefire way to be around people. Granted, you may only talk to that person behind the counter cashing out your items but it’s a human being who knows you are alive and for that brief second between scanning your items, accepting your pay and giving you a receipt and saying “Have a nice day” it feels like there is someone who actually cares that you exist, even if it’s only to empty your wallet.

    QVC built an empire on lonely people stranded at home so there is truth to what I say.

    Moral of the story: go visit those friends of yours who live alone and never seem to get out because no one ever invites them.

  24. canuckistani says:

    that is a horribly designed study. I had to design a few of these back in my undergrad and this reaks of confounding biases

  25. dorianh49 says:

    This story makes me sad. Does anyone have a bridge or some property in Florida to sell me?

  26. Jesse in Japan says:

    So, in other words, that miserly Mr. Scrooge is actually the happiest man in the world.

  27. Roclawzi says:

    @battra92: Good point about QVC.

    Convenient or not, we’ve built quite a few empires out of shopping while home alone.

  28. Erwos says:

    I think I’m more likely to spend money when I’m sad. Of course, that generally means $20 on some used video game, which isn’t exactly a bank breaker, but is a bad habit.

  29. econobiker says:

    Compulsive spending to fill a sad part of ones life? It is called a “process” addiction. This is an addiction which the brain creates its own “high” versus chemical addiction which introduces a chemical (alcohol/drugs) to help the brain get “high”. Process addictions can include sex addiction, gambling addiction.

    As others have said- the psychs are telling us what we already know…

  30. One reason to include it in the DSM-V is that by officially recognizing it, more (most?) insurance programs will have to pay for counseling/therapy to treat it. So yeah, it may seem like common sense to some, but there’s a benefit to legitimizing it in a formal way that insurance companies must recognize.

  31. Coder4Life says:

    I agree wtih this. I think people whom are depressed for short times do tend to buy more stuff b/ it’s a way of making yourself feel better.

  32. Darkwing_Duck says:

    @The_IT_Crone: My mother is the same way. Only recently has she begun to discard decades old documents and the like. I’m all for keeping my elementary school projects and crayon drawings, but you don’t need to keep every scrap of paper you’ve ever received.

    I can relate to this though. Shopping for people in my family has always been something of a compulsion, has always been seen as some means of fulfillment. An estranged family member is like this. When you tragically lose the members of your immediate family, and don’t have friends or family to fall back on, you easily become desperate for something. Shopping is distracting, and for some it can be engaging and thrilling. A combination of materialism, clever marketing, and no social support, and I see how easy it is to turn inward and find some way of passing the time, some way to, if nothing else, keep you occupied.

  33. madfrog says:

    Amen to that, I know when I am sad and have no money, the first thing I do is go out and spend the money I dont have on stupid things like water bottles!

  34. arachnophilia says:

    yeah, i coulda told you that. gotta fill that empty hole in your life, right?

    “what can i buy to make the sky turn blue again?”
    -vast, “i don’t have anything”

  35. RifRaf says:

    “a recent study showed sad test subjects were willing to spend four times as much on a nonessential item…”

    But what if you’re an compulsive bargain shopper?