Is Retail Therapy? Is Shopping Play?

Sadness, disgust, impatience, and wisdom for this Black Friday

Posted Nov 16, 2012

A recent UCR Today headline proclaimed “Retail Therapy is Real.” This contained just enough truth to magnetize and draw my eyeballs. I’d recently written about how shopping is frontloaded with feelings of anticipation and surprise, much as gambling is, but delivers not much in the way of fulfillment. So, I was anxious to read the study that seemed to contest this.

The article reported on researchers Jennifer Lerner and Ye Li’s paper, “The Financial Costs of Sadness,” that claims nothing for retail therapy. The authors, one a research psychologist and the other a professor of management, wanted to find out if the old “sadder but wiser” hypothesis about consumers’ behaviors would stand a test. We might well reasonably think that a little misery would restrain a shopper and counsel deliberation and prudence. It’s not hard to imagine that the sadder are wiser and more deliberate. But studying subjects between the ages of 18 and 65 drawn from students in Cambridge and others who lived in the Harvard neighborhood revealed instead that sadder consumers are more likely impulsive than judicious—the gloomy need to expiate their gloom as soon as possible. And impulse buyers and spenders on a spree more often suffer remorse as the exhilaration wears off and they discover that their act of expiation wasn’t so wise after all.

It’s worth mentioning the details of the study. Learner and Li insured the sadness of some subjects by showing them a weepy video—the death of a boy’s mentor. To compare the effects of another strongly negative emotion, the researchers disgusted some other subjects with a film of an appalling bathroom cleanup. After the screenings, they gauged how the emotions would affect a decision about whether to reap a small financial reward now or to postpone satisfaction for a larger reward later. This experiment may ring a bell with you because it resembles a classic 1970 study about deferring gratification. That original study found that preschoolers who were able to wait 15 minutes to receive two marshmallows, instead of taking one immediately, measured higher in self-esteem. Years later those same kids scored better on the SAT test.

Now I’m not sure how researchers protected their findings from the possibility that people who opted for reward in the near term actually needed money, and that the condition of needing money might in fact contribute to sadness. (Here I’m thinking of those commercials from TV lawyers who promise to abrogate structured settlements with the reminder “It’s your money!”) But the research results still decisively demonstrated that sadness drives impatience rather than caution. Disgust registered no effect one way or the other. It may be that sadness is a kind of loss, and thus the need for near-time reward and recompense. Learner and Li colorfully summarize the drive as “myopic misery.”

So what does myopic misery have to do with seasonal shopping and play? Only that “retail therapy” is an illusion, and that the emotions that attend play provide a contrast to motivation from myopic misery.

Black Friday at Walmart

Black Friday shoppers at Walmart

It’s axiomatic that play begins in anticipation, in the curious need for novelty, action, and surprise. Shopping clearly gives the buyer these boosts, too. But with play, more complicated emotions follow—the pleasure we take in playing, our better understanding of our fellow players and our capabilities, the satisfaction we take in competition, or the poise we feel as our skills grow.

If you’re inclined to think of Black Friday not as the day when red ink turns to black (as a retailer will), but as a defense against boredom or seasonal despondency, here’s a recommendation. Join the post-Thanksgiving throng as usual. Gift-giving, and therefore gift-buying, cements our friendships, strengthens our bonds, and enlivens our festivities. Go forth and shop without guilt. You’ll also be doing your part to revive our economy. But try to make your first purchase entirely silly—a red clown’s nose, a kazoo, a kite shaped as a squid, socks with separate toes, a pencil sharpener modeled as a nose, slippers featuring Sigmund Freud’s likeness, or a book of insults. (“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception!”) In other words, buy the stocking-stuffer first. Before you visit another store, take the thing to the parking lot, and lock it in your trunk. Only then return inside. With a goofy first purchase, you may well have gotten rid of the need to get rid of the money that’s burning a hole in your pocket. By that point you will have exhausted the entire potential of retail therapy and immunized yourself against false emotional dividends. More important, you’ll be equipped to make a wise distinction between shopping and play.