In this chaotic and uncertain world, there are still a few things we can count on to happen each December. The air will turn colder. There will be some outrage about the design of some chain’s holiday cups. And in the last couple weeks of December, stressed-out procrastinators will elbow their way through crowded stores, cursing themselves for not doing their shopping earlier and miserably calculating how much of their paycheck will be left once the season of spending passes.
And if that last one doesn’t already sound like something to avoid, consider this: Shopping when you’re unhappy is never a good idea. As an article in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind explained, one of the easiest ways to become a smarter spender is to avoid opening your wallet when you’re down. Much like grocery shopping on an empty stomach, it typically leads to purchases you’ll later regret. The reason: A bad mood, several studies have shown, can make you more immune to things that would otherwise stop you from making an unwise decision — the calorie count of a junky snack, for example, or the high price of an item in a store window.
As Scientific American noted, much of the research on mood and consumption is the work of Jennifer Lerner, who co-founded Harvard’s Decision Sciences Laboratory. In a 2008 study in the journal Psychological Science, for example, Lerner and her colleagues found that sad participants were willing to shell out more for an item than those in a neutral emotional state. And in another study, published in 2011 in Advances in Consumer Research — and titled, simply, “Sadness and Consumption” — Lerner and co-author Nikita Garg, a marketing researcher at the University of New South Wales, analyzed the link between sadness and overindulgence, discovering that it was more unconscious than anything else.
“These undesirable consumption effects of sadness typically occur without awareness by those in the sad state,” the authors wrote, and “typically occur even when the sadness-eliciting events have no rationally justifiable relation to the consumption choices at hand. Thus, the increased consumption represents more than typical, conscious attempts at ‘consumer therapy.’” In other words, overspending while bummed is a totally different beast than attempting to shop the blues away — and, therefore, one that doesn’t even provide the same pick-me-up feeling. If you can’t hit the stores while you’re happy, better to go in knowing that you’re going to shell out for an emotional boost.