When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping

—Andrew Marshall in the TV series 2Point4 Children

If your lips are curling up in a telltale smile while reading this, we are friends, or rather accomplices, in our shared appreciation of what is commonly called “retail therapy". As anyone who has experienced the joys of shopping knows, it is so much more than just buying what you need. But if you are the type to scoff at what may be considered a simple pick-me-up, it is time for some evidence. 

Misery is not miserly

Research shows that shopping may be an effective way to minimize feelings of sadness and help repair mood. So what is about sadness that makes us loosen our purse strings like there is no tomorrow? 

The underlying reason is both fascinating and intuitive. Sadness, more than any other emotion, engenders a sense of lack of control over one’s surroundings. You may be sad that your favourite restaurant was shut the night you decided to have an impromptu date, or that a public holiday falls on Sunday this year. But there’s nothing much you can do to get the restaurant to open or shift the calendar. 

Whatever may be the cause of this, one thing is common: sadness is associated with a feeling of helplessness—of not being able to control what is happening in the environment.

This is where shopping comes to the rescue. A 2014 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology showed that shopping works to alleviate this feeling of sadness and helplessness by restoring a sense of control. Researchers found that the mere act of making shopping-related choices (and rejecting what was not liked) was enough to make people happy. They did not actually need to buy anything. 

Yes, the therapeutic, mood-enhancing effect of making choices existed in both real and hypothetical situations. The participants did not need to physically lug back their possessions to feel better. 

Unfortunately, sadness loves shopping so much that it leads what has been termed the “misery is not miserly" effect. Research shows that sad people are more willing to part with their money to acquire an object. In a fascinating paper published in Psychological Science, researchers found that when feeling sad, people were willing to pay up to 30% more money to get their hands on a product, relative to those in a neutral mood. 

While sadness is one manifestation of feeling a loss of control over life’s outcomes, many other factors in the environment can engender a sense of lacking control. Not surprisingly, some are by design. 

Lose control, shop more

Research shows that crowded supermarkets can diminish one’s sense of control, leading to excessive buying. In a fascinating field study, scholars found that consumers in a crowded store were likely to buy and spend significantly more than shoppers in an uncrowded store. Not surprisingly, the effect disappears when shoppers are made aware of the economic ramifications of the loss of control that crowded environments can induce. Forewarned is indeed forearmed. 

While crowding is a time- and season-specific phenomenon, some stores are cluttered by design. Unbeknownst to you, the overloaded shelves and overflowing aisles are encouraging you to hoard. 

Big Bazaar has certainly learnt its “cover-every-inch-of-space-with-merchandise" lesson from the messy kirana stores of yore, where you had to ask the shopkeeper for each item. Overloaded shelves and strained display windows effectively scream “bargain". 

According to the author of Why We Buy, Paco Underhill, an unkempt, super-packed store screams value for money, deals that must not be missed and offers that should move swiftly and seamlessly from overflowing shelves to burgeoning trolleys. 

When being good allows us to be bad

Retail therapy may have a bad name but practiced in moderation, it is a relatively harmless and effective way to repair mood. What is probably more incriminating, but hardly talked about, is what psychologists call “self-licensing".

In simple terms, being good frees us to be bad. So, eating cheese burst stuffed crust pizza because you had salad for lunch. Get the picture?

Consider this thought experiment: say you know two people, A and B. Both are planning to buy leather wallets. Options abound, including a no-brand wallet worth $20 to a luxury brand wallet worth $400. Who is more likely to buy the pricier wallet?

A, who spent an hour this week doing community work at the local home for the elderly or B, who was on a business trip? Pat on the back if you said A, he’s indeed more likely to indulge because his good deed have earned him the “moral credits" to sin later. Nobody questions this kind of spending because c’mon, we all deserve to feel good after a difficult exam, a big presentation, and the like. It is akin to getting a license to stray from the path of goodness. 

But the story doesn’t end here. So keen are we to justify our indulgent spending that the good deed doesn’t even need to happen. The mere thought of being good is enough to trigger feelings of actually being virtuous, and wanting to cash in on all the goodness. 

In a fascinating study in the Journal of Marketing Research, participants were asked to imagine that they had committed to spending three hours a week doing community service. They were then asked to choose between two causes (teaching children in a homeless shelter and improving the environment) to volunteer for. Subsequently, they were given a choice between a utilitarian product and an indulgent product. 

Participants who had chosen a charity to work with (without actually having done any work) were more likely to opt for the indulgent item to reward themselves, presumably, for being the epitome of goodness. 

The licensing effect works because it is so elegant in its simplicity. Doing—or wanting to do well—provides a much-deserved boost to our self-concept. Since indulgent or luxury items often come with a host of negative tags, this positive boost helps us offset the negative connotations associated with such products. 

Whether it is a means to reward good behaviour, an escape from the routine, an expression of individuality and creativity, or simply a mood enhancer, shopping—in moderation—is indeed therapeutic. 

However, next time you get serenaded by the call of the mall, to prevent getting carried away and paying a ton for things you don’t really need, do this instead: open your favourite store’s website and indulge in the mindless task of browsing, choosing, and most importantly, rejecting a few things. If you really like something, save it in your cart. 

Go back two days later, if you still like it, go ahead and buy. Who said retail therapy had to be wasteful?

Shilpa Madan is a consumer psychologist, currently pursuing her PhD in Marketing from Nanyang Business School, Singapore. Having worked with Unilever in sales and marketing in her past life, she now aspires to bridge the academia–business chasm through Serein Insights, an endeavor to de-mystify and leverage academic research for solving diverse problems for businesses and brands. She tweets at @Shilpa_Madan

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