What Shame & Guilt Can Do To Your Wallet

Retail therapy definitely has its place in our lives, but new research suggests that how we feel influences how we buy (surprise!) — and not always in a good way.
The study, published online recently in the Journal of Consumer Research, used a series of experiments to look at how our shopping habits change when we're feeling guilty or ashamed. To do so, researchers primed participants to feel either guilt or shame by asking them to describe previous times when they felt those emotions. Then, participants had to choose between different activity options that were seemingly unrelated to the guilt/shame priming.
For this study, guilt was described as "an emotion that is experienced when individuals appraise negative outcomes to their specific actions." And, although guilt and shame share many things in common, the latter was defined as "a negative emotion experienced when individuals attribute negative outcomes to shortcomings within themselves." So, guilt implies a negative association with a specific behavior, but shame is evident of a negative association with our entire self (ouch). Therefore, the study's authors theorized that a feeling of guilt would be associated with more internally-focused thinking (also known as lower construal level, or interpreting the world in relation to yourself), whereas shame would be associated with more globally-focused thinking (higher construal level, or focusing on your relationships with others).
The results suggested that, when feeling guilty, participants were more likely to go after feasible activities or attributes (e.g., they'd choose to attend a concert if it were cheap — even if they didn't like the band). But, when feeling ashamed, participants preferred the more desirable, but less attainable options (e.g., attending an expensive concert of a favorite band). So, the authors suggest that if you're feeling guilty, you might be more drawn to the specific details of a decision ("These tickets are cheap, let's snag 'em."). But, if you're feeling shameful, you could be swept away by larger concepts ("Seeing this band will CHANGE MY LIFE!") and forget they're not actually affordable.
These results have implications that are especially relevant to advertising: If an ad primes us to feel one emotion or another, that could influence how we go about shopping later on. And, for us consumers, we clearly need to be mindful of how we feel before we make any big purchases. Do you actually want to spend your whole bonus on Kanye tickets? Or, are you just nursing a bruised ego? Okay, maybe it's both, but just check in with yourself first. Your budget will thank you.

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