Sunday, May 19, 2013

Does sadness have a cost?

There are 6 universal emotions: sadness, surprise, happiness, disgust, anger, and fear. These are considered universal because they are, independent of language, found and recognized between and across all cultures. Thus, these 6 emotions have likely played an important role in human survival across the centuries. For example, fear helps us communicate to members of our community that there is a threat in the environment, happiness might signal safety and security to others in the vicinity, disgust conveys that something is indigestible, and sadness recruits the social support of others. However, some emotions are experienced to a greater degree by some individuals, while other individuals are less apt to regulate their emotions once the environment no longer necessitates them. Given that humans now live in highly complex and communicative societies as well as the recent state of the global economy, psychologists have been led to ask whether emotions now cost more than they’re worth. 

Most recently, Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University and her colleagues conducted 3 experiments to test whether sadness causes individuals to make costly financial decisions. To do this, they first had 202 individuals randomly divided into 3 groups. The first group watched a sad film, the second a disgusting film, and the third group watched a neutral film. After the film, they had the participants complete a financial decision-making task, where participants chose whether they would rather receive a small amount of money immediately, or a larger amount of money sometime in the future. Based on their responses, the researchers were able to calculate how much waiting for money was "worth" to these participants. They found that participants in the sad film condition were more likely to take 13-34% less money immediately than participants in the other two conditions. In monetary terms, $50 was only "worth" $48 to the participants in the sad-condition. 

From here, the research group wondered why participants in the sad condition were so much more inclined to take less money for immediate reward. To answer this, they conducted this experiment again with another 189 participants, except this time they asked participants to report their reasons why they made each decision. Participants in the sad condition were much quicker to generate reasons why it was better for them to take less money right now and expressed more impatience for waiting than participants in the disgust and neutral conditions. 

Finally, they were interested in whether the findings of the first 2 studies were specific to the immediacy of getting a monetary reward or an aversion to waiting. So, they conducted this same experiment a 3rd time with 203 more participants where the financial decision task included the original options (small amount of money immediately, or a larger amount of money sometime in the future), but also trials where they could choose small amounts of money in a week or larger amounts of money in months. This allowed them to conclude that sadness increases impatience for monetary reward only when there are immediate gains to be made, but when any waiting was involved (1 week vs 1 month) the sad participants chose the larger value. 

Lerner and her colleagues concluded that sadness causes individuals to make costly financial decisions due to the impatience that results from experiencing sadness. However, these conclusions may be pre-mature and over-generalized. To me, these sad participants may have been selecting the immediate, albeit smaller, reward to reduce their feelings of sadness. The authors argue that because individuals in the other negative condition (disgust) did not make the same costly financial decisions, that the behavior was not driven by efforts to regulate negative emotions, but was disgust the best comparison? Would they find the same with anger or fear?

Furthermore, what if we follow these participants for a few more hours or days? Are the individuals who chose the immediate rewards after the sad video also the ones who had a productive evening? Is there any benefit to making sure sadness lasts no longer than it has to? Certainly it is better to eat today if you are starving to death than save your food for tomorrow in hopes you will make it. Can a similar set of conditions not also apply to emotions and effectively regulating them?

Regardless of the overarching interpretation of these findings, we have learned an important lesson. Sadness increases our propensity for immediate gains at the expense of our future. I’m sure many of you find this intuitive given that sadness often results in the consumption of ice cream and cupcakes, retail therapy, and skipping your regular jog or yoga class. In the moment, these decisions service our desire to no longer feel sad. Skipping your workout may allow you to sleep in 30 more minutes and avoid the discomfort of crying in front of your boss when the printer runs out of ink, again. But when do these simple decisions turn into problems of obesity, credit-card debt, and sedentary lives? On a larger scale, these data speak to a common occurrence when we lose a family member or close friend. Think of the widow who has just lost her husband of 50 years and the financial decisions she must make in quick succession: selling a house, moving, finding a new home, revising a will. This study introduces the psychological question:

When should we allow ourselves to make financial decisions?

Unfortunately, I have no answers on this matter. I can only encourage you to acknowledge your sadness when you experience it, and seek out the least costly means of mitigating the sadness first; a hug from a friend, the love of a puppy, music or a change of scenery. In life, it is a certainty that you will be forced to make decisions in the midst of sadness and all you can do is your best.

Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., & Weber, E. U. (2013). The financial costs of sadness. Psychological science24(1), 72-79.


  1. Kate, thank you for a great post! I know that mitigating negative emotions prior to making any decision is a sensible thing to do, and this research is an excellent reinforcement!

    Could it be that the researches chose disgust condition for their experiment because fear and anger are more likely to create a need for immediate gratification, i.e. perform similar to sadness?

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