The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Retail Therapy: Is Shopping the Best Medicine?

The jury is actually out on whether retail therapy is good for you.

Put down your wallets all you sad and lonely people. Wait. Pick them up again and get in your car. Oops. Stop.

You see, the jury is still out on whether retail therapy is good for anything that ails you. A 2011 study of compulsive shopping in college students gave retail therapy poor grades indeed. Compulsive shoppers had lower grade point averages, increased stress, and poorer physical and mental health.

And compulsive shopping is itself beginning to be considered a psychological disorder. It even has a fancy name—oniomania—from the Greek words for “for sale” and “insanity.” Yet a 2011 report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed at least some clear benefits to retail therapy. Indeed, the researchers found that regular light doses of shopping helped people live longer. Elderly people living alone who shopped every day were 27% less likely to die over the study’s nine-year period.

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But getting out on a regular basis to buy a few things and compulsively buying are hardly the same approach to consumerism. Retail therapy, it seems, may be a horse of many colors.

And even when retail therapy is temporarily compulsive, it may not deserve the bad reputation it has.

In an article still in press at the Journal of Consumer Psychology (but available online as of December 31, 2014), a team from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor presents data from three experiments showing that in both hypothetical and real situations, making shopping choices helps people restore a lost sense of personal control, and by doing so alleviates sadness. According to the researchers, it’s not compulsive buying that helps. It’s the repetitive exercise of choice inherent in the typical shopping scenario.

Scott Rick, lead author of the study and an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business bemoans the stigma associated with retail therapy. “Our data show that shopping can be therapeutic under certain circumstances for sad people. But many sad people who would benefit from shopping likely avoid doing so because they fear feeling or being judged as foolish. Consumers (and retailers) may benefit once there is greater awareness of the value of retail therapy.”

So, yes, economically speaking retail therapy may be far more of a boon to retailers than it is to consumers. Regardless, for sad people it may be a worthwhile endeavor—unless, perhaps, it results in debt…which causes feelings of loss of control…resulting in sadness.

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Scott I. Rick, Beatriz Pereira, and Katherine A. Burson, “The Benefits of Retail Therapy: Making Purchase Decisions Reduces Residual Sadness.” In Press, Journal of Consumer Psychology

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and humorist. Her most recent science book is Murders Most Foul: And the School Shooters in Our Midst. Her most recent humor book is Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake: And Other “Recipes” for the Intellectually Famished.

 

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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