The Edge of Choice

What affects us when we decide?

Does Feeling Sad Mean Being Wiser?

Sadder but wiser? New research suggests not.

Watching my dog search all over the house for a misplaced bone (and not find it) reminds me of the way I sometimes feel when I want to try to shake a sad or negative mood. I can look all over, but the problem doesn’t necessarily get solved. Someone, somewhere invented the phrase “sadder but wiser” probably to give the sad people of the world a glimmer of hope: “Hey, you might be sad now, but at least you’re wicked smart!”.

In fact, several dozen research studies conducted over the past three decades have come to the conclusion that there is a link (albeit a fairly small one) between feeling sad and judgments of reality: sad or depressed people are more accurate in their judgments of their performance on laboratory tasks than their non-depressed counterparts are. The rose-colored glasses that happy folks wear in their everyday lives, in other words, can sometimes lead to inflated judgments of themselves (sidenote: the guy sitting next to me at the beach this weekend must have been very happy, because his Speedo probably should have been a size bigger, and not a Speedo at all).

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Yet, does feeling sadder truly make us wiser? We’d certainly like to think so: putting a positive spin on a negative experience can help make it more palatable. If we think about how sadness actually affects people, then a different story emerges. Emotion theorists have long thought that sadness arises from feelings of loss or helplessness, and thus, feeling sad gives rise to a specific desire to want to change one’s circumstances. This should all sound pretty straightforward. What may be less obvious, though, is that this feeling of sadness can actually cause people to lessen the value that they place on themselves. In ominous psychological research terms, feeling sad causes a devaluation of the self.

A line of research, led by Jennifer Lerner from Harvard, has suggested that one way people try to combat the feelings that sadness evokes is by turning to the external environment. After all, William James, the early American psychologist and philosopher, theorized that the self is made up of not just our psychological features, but also of all the things that we can call our own (e.g., our house, our bank accounts, etc.). If there is such a thing as a “material self”, as James would have said, then we should be able to alter our feelings by altering the things that comprise the self, even if those things are simply material in nature. Feeling sad, then, should cause people to want to spend more money on desirable items. To the extent that sadness causes a desire to change the self, this need to spend should be particularly pronounced when people are paying special attention to the self.  

This is exactly the hypothesis that was tested in a 2008 paper. One group of research participants were made to feel sad by watching a moving clip from the 1980s film The Champ (Ricky Schroder probably had no idea in 1979 that his dramatic tears would be used to make countless research subjects weepy in the ensuing decades). Another group was made to feel neutral by watching a brief National Geographic segment. All participants were then shown a handsome water bottle and asked how much they would pay for it.

In general, sad participants were willing to pay about four times as much for the water bottle than participants in the neutral condition were. But interestingly, this effect was driven by those people who were particularly focused on themselves (this was determined by a writing task that counted the number of times words like “I” and “me” were mentioned). Sadness didn’t necessarily lead to an increase in spending, but it did when participants were focused on the self, and therefore, were presumably trying to figure out ways to make themselves feel better.

In a recent follow-up paper, Lerner, Ye Li, and Elke Weber made participants feel sad (by again watching the clip from The Champ), disgust (by watching the famous toilet scene from Trainspotting), or neutral, and then gave them decisions between smaller amounts of money that they could receive immediately versus significantly larger amounts money that they could receive at a delayed amount of time. In lab tasks like this, choosing the smaller reward is considered unwise: one would need an unrealistically high interest rate to make the immediate reward eventually equal to the later reward. Nonetheless, taking the smaller reward is another way to change one’s present circumstances (just like buying the water bottle is).

Here, the sad participants were much more impatient (that is, they were more likely to take a small reward now than wait for a larger reward later) than both the neutral participants and the disgusted participants.

So, it’s not that any negative emotional state can lead to unwise financial choices. Nor, as it turns out, is it the case that sadder equals wiser: the judgments that people made about themselves in the “depressive realism” studies don’t necessarily translate into the types of actual decisions measured in Lerner and colleagues’ studies. Indeed, the sad folks in these studies didn’t end up feeling happier a result of their impatient choices (although this wasn’t measured in the most recent paper, it was in earlier ones). To the extent that poor spending decisions can actually lead to increased sadness and negative feelings, it may make sense to question how truly wise it is to spend money the next time you’re feeling blue.

Hal E. Hershfield, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.

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