Emotional Spending Costs You More than You Think


IT’S NO SECRET that people turn to retail therapy from time to time, the consequences of which can vary dramatically depending on how crazy you go with the plastic. One study published in the Journal of Consumer Research studied the concept of emotional spending a step further and attempted to figure out exactly which emotions have the biggest impact on our spending decisions.

Specifically, the study compared the differences between the feeling of being guilty and the feeling of being ashamed and how consumer spending differs in each situation. The experiments consisted of priming the participants by recalling a time that they felt one of the emotions, and then asked them to make a choice between activities that seemed totally unrelated to what they had just been discussing, but that had to do with spending money.

To keep the emotions separate for the study, guilt was described beforehand as:

“An emotion that is experienced when individuals appraise negative outcomes to their specific actions.”

Shame, conversely, was described as:

“A negative emotion experienced when individuals attribute negative outcomes to shortcomings within themselves.”

Those are similar feelings at first blush, but also significantly different. Guilt can come from a circumstance from outside of you that you happened to be a part of or witnessed, while shame is just really blaming yourself or making yourself feel bad, no matter if that’s warranted or not.

The results of the study revealed that when people are people feeling guilty, their thoughts are more aligned towards the details in making a decision, while shame is more likely to encourage consumers to make purchases they can’t really afford based on how much they imagine its importance to be. As a specific example, while feeling guilty, you might dine at a reasonably-priced restaurant even if it isn’t your top choice, but when faced with shame, you might be more likely to blow a quarter of your rent on a high-end sushi meal because you feel like you deserve a midweek celebration to change the way your week has been going. Either way, you might be spending in a less-than-perfect way, but shame has the capability to blow through your savings a lot faster.

Besides being a reminder to check in with what you’re really feeling before you spend what you know is too much on concert tickets, this can also help you think about advertising in a different way. You’d better believe that ads are created to tap into our vast array of emotions and urge, if not manipulate, us into spending as much cash as possible.

Next time you find yourself charging into the mall and bee-lining for the shoe department, take a minute to consider why.

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