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Feeling sad? Watch your wallet.

Posted by Simon Waxman  November 19, 2012 11:48 AM

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We’ve all been there. Your date goes badly. Your job application gets rejected. Your friends move out of town. How do you cope? Maybe you go on a shopping spree or drink a little too much. Donning PJs and downing a full pint of Ben and Jerry’s is a classic response.

You’re sad. And it turns out that sadness can cost you financially.

In newly published research, investigators at Harvard and Columbia show what they call “myopic misery” in action. A series of experiments suggest that sad people have a harder time delaying gratification than do those in a more neutral state of mind, or even than those affected by other negative emotions, such as disgust.

The researchers primed study participants by showing them short videos concerning sad, neutral, and disgusting subjects and having them write essays and answer questionnaires. Researchers then offered participants a chance to collect a small amount of money immediately, or more later. Sad people had the lowest bar for what they were willing to take right now:

“In monetary terms, whereas the median sad participant accepted $37 today rather than wait 3 months to receive $85, the median neutral participant required $56 today.”

This myopia may have implications for public policy. We often make important financial decisions in moments of sadness. The authors argue that existing laws don’t sufficiently take into account emotional effects:

“Although the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a cooling-off rule, giving individuals three days to cancel a sale, this rule exempts real estate, insurance, and securities—exactly the sorts of sales one might engage in after the death of a family member, loss of employment, or a natural disaster.”

As psychologists and neuroscientists gain a more complete picture of how emotions affect choices, raising questions about the moment-by-moment competence and responsibility of decision-makers, the law can’t help but take notice.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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