Brain Babble

Unraveling neuroscience research and FAQs—without the jargon

The Neuroscience of Christmas Shoes

Is there a psychological explanation behind this famous Christmas tune?

Sir, I wanna buy these shoes for my mama, please. It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size. Could you hurry, sir? Daddy says there's not much time...

This little gem by New Song permeates the airwaves each year around this time, igniting tears and snickers alike in its listeners.

We all know why the man agrees to buy the shoes for the boy—I mean, "his clothes were worn and old, he was dirty from head to toe." But how much would he be willing to part with for this anonymous child—$20? $30? $100? Research suggests that the sadder the man, the more he would be willing to pay.

In a 2008 Psychological Science study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Harvard, and Pitt explored the connection between sadness and buying. Participants viewed either a sad video (a scene of the death of a boy's mentor, from The Champ) or a neutral, emotionless clip (a National Geographic video on the Great Barrier Reef).

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Afterward, participants had the option of buying an ordinary commodity—a water bottle. Those that had previously viewed the sad clip were willing to pay, on average, 3 times more for the bottle than those who viewed the neutral clip. Interestingly, the "sad" group insisted that the content of their clip did not affect their willingness to pay the amount they chose.

The authors reason the sad clip caused those participants to devalue both their sense of self and current possessions, making them willing to pay for new material possessions. Presumably, this could re-enhance their sense of self.

It is important to note that this was a modest study of empathy in the form of short video clips. The impact of truly intense sadness could lead to dangerous or risky spending behavior—perhaps even translating to domains beyond money, such as seeking new relationships.

According to co-author James Gross, "people can't and shouldn't go shopping when they feel down—when we're feeling sad, we may be making really unwise decisions financially."

In other words, for the love of your wallet (and, for some, your ears), shut off "Christmas Shoes" should you hear those opening piano notes as you pull into the mall parking lot to do your Christmas shopping.

Cryder CE, Lerner JS, Gross JJ, & Dahl RE (2008). Misery is not miserly: sad and self-focused individuals spend more. Psychological science, 19 (6), 525-30 PMID: 18578840

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
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