University of Michigan researchers say 'retail therapy' actually helps combat sadness

Feb 23, 2013

Feeling the blues?

University of Michigan researchers say so called ‘retail therapy’ can help.

In one study of 45 female undergraduates, 44 percent chose to buy a snack after viewing a movie clip that portrays a bullying incident. Participants rated their emotions at the beginning and end of the experiment. At the end of the study, the sadness scores of buyers were significantly lower than those of nonbuyers.

Then, in a second study, 100 adults who participated online viewed a movie clip that portrayed the death of a boy's mentor (previous research has shown that the clip reliably induces sadness). Then the participants were randomly assigned to either choosing or browsing conditions.

Choosers were told to imagine buying $100 worth of products by placing them in a shopping cart. They were then presented with 12 products, each priced at $25, and asked to select four by dragging them into a shopping cart.

Browsers were presented with the same 12 products and asked to judge which four would be the most useful when traveling, by clicking on four products and dragging them into a box labeled travel items.

Because only some products were appropriate for travel, but all may be desirable when shopping, choosers had more of an opportunity to implement their preferences and experience a sense of control. As a result, at the end of the study, the sadness scores of choosers were significantly lower than those of browsers.

Scott Rick is a U of M marketing professor.  He says U of M studies show people do feel less sadness after shopping, in part because it helps restore a sense of control.

“Maybe it helps to go online…or even just, as our results show, just shop hypothetically, exert some choice to get that control back,” says Rick. 

Rick says shopping doesn’t cure all ills. For example, shopping does not appear to relieve feelings of anger and guilt.