The Hidden Influence of Sadness


Faculty ResearcherJennifer Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title Sadness and Consumption
Coauthor Nitika Garg, Australian School of Business, University of New South Wales

Sadness, as songwriters constantly remind us, is a powerful emotion. Yet the ways in which it can influence our actions are far from obvious and have not been fully explicated.

Over the past decade or so, Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, has studied the effects of sadness and other emotions on behavior, including economic choices. In a new paper, “Sadness and Consumption,” Lerner and Nitika Garg, of the University of New South Wales, found that sadness can, for instance, cause people to overindulge in unhealthful foods, prompting “undesirable consumption effects [that] can occur without awareness, thus representing more than just conscious attempts at ‘retail therapy’".

One reason that Lerner and Garg find sadness intriguing is that negative emotions (such as disgust) normally lead people to perceive the world in negative ways, triggering a “generalized negative valuation of, say, a new product.” Sadness does not fit this pattern; instead, it triggers a positive valuation of new products, as measured by a willingness to pay more. This effect operates in diverse domains, the authors state, extending into the realm of eating as well.

To probe the latter connection, Lerner and Garg conducted an experiment with 104 undergraduates at a large university in the southern United States. They began with two principal hypotheses: that “incidental sadness”— such as the feelings evoked by watching a movie — can increase consumption of a “hedonic food product,” in this case, m&ms; and that levels of consumption will be affected by feelings of helplessness, which correspond to a lack of control.

The subjects were divided into two groups. Half were asked to write in vivid detail about things that made them feel sad; the other half were asked to describe routine activities that they undertook in a typical day. The first group later analyzed a tragic narrative, while the second group evaluated a more mundane account. The subjects were again divided into two groups, those who received an “imposed gift”— a box of Godiva chocolates — and those who could choose between the chocolates and a pen. Participants were given pre-weighed bowls of m&ms, which they were free to eat during the assigned tasks. Their total consumption (measured in grams) was determined afterward.

Perhaps the most salient finding of this study concerns the effect of control — and its opposite, helplessness — on sad people. Subjects in the sad subgroup who were not given a choice of gift ate significantly more m&ms than subjects in the emotionally neutral subgroup. But when sad subjects were allowed to choose their gift, they consumed roughly the same amount of m&ms as did the neutral participants (whose consumption did not vary with control). The authors believe that the effect of sadness on consumption could be mitigated by promoting a sad person’s feelings of control, thus pointing the way toward possible “strategic interventions” in the future.

In a separate research paper that’s currently in press, Lerner and colleagues have explored the financial cost of sadness, focusing on “present bias”— a phenomenon relating to the fact that people tend to want things now rather than later and will make irrational choices out of impatience. If you ask people whether they want $100 a year from now or $102 in a year and one day, most will wait the extra day to get the $102, Lerner explains. But if you ask them whether they want $100 today or $102 tomorrow, almost all of them choose the former. “That’s a strong effect, which is exacerbated by sadness, even if the sadness is incidental,” she says. “Even low-level sadness can have a strong effect on financial habits and, over time, people can make a lot of suboptimal decisions.”

The effect is more common than one might expect, given that individuals have to settle an estate when a family member dies or figure out how to split up assets during a divorce. Unfortunately, Lerner’s research shows, sadder is not necessarily wiser, despite the poet Samuel Coleridge’s fine words to the contrary.

— by Steve Nadis

“Even low-level sadness can have a strong effect on financial habits and, over time, people can make a lot of suboptimal decisions.”

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