The Best Way to Go Shopping: With a Smile

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Forget retail therapy. New research suggests that happy people make wiser decisions than those who shop away their sorrows.

shop main flickr Chicago's North Shore Conventions & Visitors Bureau 2646397985_87704d97a1_z-1.jpg

Note to impulsive buyers: Shop when you're happy.

A new study slated to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that mood affects our ability to make swift, balanced, and efficient assessments—and, as a result, to shop wisely.

Take the case of a person looking to purchase a luxury car. Paul M. Herr, the study's lead author and a professor of marketing at Virginia Tech, says such a consumer may consider only the attributes he likes if he's in a foul mood. He may purchase the car without considering some reasons to dislike or pass on it, such as its high price, its snobbish image, or its potentially exorbitant repair costs.

"We are remarkably good at coming up with after-the-fact justifications for how we arrive at our judgments," says Herr. "But left to our own devices and when in negative moods, we focus on liking questions only and tend to get confirming responses."

Herr and co-authors Christine M. Page, Bruce E. Pfeiffer, and Derick F. Davis measured the impact of "affect" (emotions, level of optimism/pessimism, etc.) on the decision-making abilities of 288 respondents across three experiments. In one experiment, the researchers primed the moods of the participants by asking them to recall and write about an extremely sad or happy event, or nothing at all. They then briefly showed each participant images on a computer of a likable object (a puppy, for example), an unlikeable object (a python), or a neutral object (a stapler), as well as an evaluative adjective (like, dislike, good, bad). The participants were instructed to press a "yes" key if the adjective matched their feeling toward the object or a "no" key if it did not, and to do so as quickly as possible.

The researchers found that respondents in a positive mood decided the fastest and most consistently. And it turns out that although everyone evaluated the likable items easily, it was only the happy respondents who were able to get through the images of the items they disliked just as proficiently.

Practically speaking, the paper's associate editor, Frank Kardes, says the findings suggest that evaluating good attributes is fast and easy, whereas assessing bad attributes requires more time and effort. This asymmetry, he explains, is reduced with happiness and increased by sadness.

"Moods change the way people think about products in a fundamental way," says Kardes, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati. "Many ads and retail environments are designed to put consumers in a good mood, so it's important to understand how a good mood influences consumers' thought processes."

Conversely, it may also be important to note how our emotions can make indulging in retail therapy irrational. Marketing researcher Nicole Mead, for instance, recently showed how being heartbroken or socially rejected can lead to overspending, the purchase of unwanted items, and even criminality.

Still, consumer behavior expert Scott Rick says people shouldn't necessarily avoid retail therapy all together. Instead, he says people should consider opportunity costs when shopping. If a person is deciding whether to indulge in a five-dollar latte, for instance, then he should consider what the next best use of those five dollars is and then compare the pleasures associated with consuming the latte and consuming that other object. "Feelings," Rick says, "are an imperfect proxy for opportunity costs."

But the bottom line is that emotions matter. As Paul Herr puts it, "If you're interested in making good decisions, don't shop when you're unhappy—or at least don't shop for things that you haven't decided to buy before the fact."

Image: Chicago's North Shore Conventions & Visitors Bureau/flickr

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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