When You’re Sad, You Want Things NOW!

Sad moods focus you on immediate rewards over future rewards.

You have probably experienced cases where your mood influences your choices.  You watch different movies when you are sad than when you are not.  You listen to different music.  You engage in different activities.

 Is it possible, though, that being sad could cost you money?

 This issue was examined in an interesting paper in the January, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jennifer Lerner, Ye Li, and Elke Weber. 

 They were interested in whether people who are sad are biased to want to get a reward now rather than waiting for a larger reward in the future.  The idea was that sad people might want to get something now in order to help them improve their mood.  By taking something now, though, they may be giving up something more that they could have down the line.

 In one study, participants watched one of three video clips.  Those in the Sad condition watched a sad video about someone dying.  Those in the Disgust condition watched a video about someone reaching into a vile toilet.  The Disgust condition was used to ensure that the results were due to sadness and not just due to a negative emotion.  Finally, those in the Neutral condition watched a video about a coral reef.

 After the mood induction, participants made a series of choices between getting a certain amount of money now and a larger amount of money some time in the future.  (Participants were told that some participants would actually be given the rewards they chose, so they should choose carefully.)  The idea behind these studies is to examine how much more money people need to get in the future in order to give up a particular sum right now.  Overall, people in the sad condition were more likely to take money now rather than waiting.  The median person in the sad condition needed to get only $37 in order to give up $85 in 3 months.  While the median person in the Neutral condition needed $56 in order to give up $85 in 3 months.  The people in the Disgust condition acted similarly to those in the Neutral condition.  So, these results are specific to feeling sad, and are not true of any negative mood.

 So, sad people wanted to get a reward right now, even if it meant giving up much more money in the future. 

 Another study in this series added a clever wrinkle.  From the results of the first study alone, you can’t tell whether sad people want something immediately or they are just more likely than other people to prefer rewards nearer to the present than those farther off into the future.

To test this idea, participants were shown either a sad or a neutral video.  Then, they were asked to choose between rewards they would get now and in the future or rewards that they would get two weeks from now and further in the future.  This design allows the researchers to tease apart these two possibilities.  If participants in the Sad condition always take less money for nearer events than further, it suggests that they don’t want to wait for future events.  However, if they only take less money for immediate rewards but not for those where two weeks is the nearer event, it would suggest that sad people are biased to get something right now.

 The results of this study showed clearly that sad participants were biased to take rewards immediately over waiting for the future.  When the reward that was nearer in time was still two weeks away, the participants in the Sad condition acted like those in the Neutral condition.

Putting this all together, when you are sad, you engage mechanisms to make yourself happier in that moment.  One thing that you will do is to seek immediate rewards rather than focusing on larger rewards you might get in the future.  That bias may cost you in the future. 

 If you find yourself feeling sad, try to avoid making decisions that trade off the present for the future.  In that sad mood, you will probably short-change your future self in order to get something immediately.  Instead, try to delay your choice until your mood improves.

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Top 25 List: February 2013