The Myopia of Misery by dSNAuo



                          Sadder, but Not Wiser: The Myopia of Misery

                         Jennifer S. Lernera,1, Ye Lib, and Elke U. Weberb

                Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
            Center for Decision Sciences, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027

                Classification: Social Sciences – Psychological and Cognitive Sciences

                    Secondary classification: Social Sciences – Economic Sciences

 To whom correspondence should be addressed:
Jennifer Lerner
79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
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       Hundreds of studies have examined the “sadder-but-wiser” hypothesis—that sad people

make wiser decisions—and most find support for it. However, such studies typically examined

judgments and decisions in domains without precisely quantifiable, normative standards of

“wisdom.” Moreover, virtually no tests of the hypothesis examined financial decisions, arguably

the most frequent and consequential decisions people make. To address these gaps, the present

experiments examined the effects of sadness on intertemporal financial choices of the form $X

now versus $(X+Y) later—typical of the choices people make when considering whether to

spend now or save to spend more later. Studies of intertemporal choices typically reveal extreme

impatience. That is, people typically choose earlier rewards over significantly larger, later

rewards, leading to regret. Would sadness reverse the typical pattern by increasing wisdom and

decreasing impatience—per the sadder-but-wiser hypothesis? Three experiments show the

opposite and quantify the exact financial disadvantage of sadness: Whereas the median neutral-

mood participant was indifferent between receiving $19 today and $100 in a year, the median

sad-mood participant became indifferent at only $4 today. Moreover, sadness increased

impatience even though the emotion was normatively irrelevant to the choice. In sum, sadder is

not wiser when it comes to making tradeoffs between time and money, calling into question the

otherwise long-supported view that “sadder is wiser.” Explanations and implications are

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        People typically make the most consequential choices of their lives while in emotional

states. Love drives a decision to propose or accept marriage; anger drives a decision to strike

someone; fear drives a decision to abandon one’s home amidst disaster. Sometimes a particular

emotion holds inextricable links to a particular set of decisions. Consider, for example, the

intense sadness one feels after the death of a family member and the numerous financial

decisions that must be made to settle that person’s estate.

        The classic view holds that emotions exert an irrational, even contemptible, influence on

judgment and decision making (1, 2). According to this view, sadness would trigger biases in

judgment and decision making, presumably costly biases in the case of settling an entire

financial estate. According to an opposing view however, sadness is a special-case emotion.

Since the initial demonstration of “depressive realism” (3), hundreds of papers have examined

the “sadder-but-wiser” hypothesis—that sadness and depression make individuals wiser.

        Most studies have found support for the sadder-but-wiser hypothesis. Due in part to the

fact that a sad mood triggers systematic thought, sadness has been shown to reduce a range of

biases, including having overly optimistic views of one’s importance, reputation, and abilities (3),

relying on stereotypes (4), and over-attributing causality to individuals (5). However, some

studies have also found the opposite, noting increased bias among sad individuals (6, 7). Several

methodological factors in the literature have limited the ability to draw clear conclusions.

Specifically, studies have overly relied on small samples, correlational designs, tasks without

real financial consequences, and judgment or choice paradigms without quantifiable standards

for rationality.

        We attempted to reconcile this debate by improving upon each of the limiting factors

described above. We chose to focus on the domain of intertemporal choice, for three reasons.
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First, quantifiable standards of wisdom apply. Second, intertemporal choices requiring a decision

between a sooner (usually smaller) reward and a later (usually larger) reward are pervasive in

daily life. Third, intertemporal choices have important consequences. In one well-known

experiment, Mischel and Ebbesen (8) offered preschoolers one marshmallow and promised them

a second if they could wait 15 minutes before eating the first one. Those who were able to

postpone immediate gratification developed into more cognitively and socially competent

adolescents. They had greater self-esteem, higher SAT scores, and better educational and

economic achievements as adults (9, 10).

       To be sure, future gains have less utility than equivalent immediate gains and should be

discounted to a smaller present value (11). But the extent to which people discount future

outcomes tends to be irrationally impatient (12), leading to such societal problems as credit card

debt (13), insufficient savings (14), and overeating/under-exercising (15). Field studies (16),

natural experiments (17, 18), and laboratory experiments (12) report discounting that far exceeds

market-based interest rates. Although emotion has been posited as the main driver for irrationally

high impatience (11, 19), we know of almost no studies that have tested for its causal role. One

notable exception (20) is a study of positive emotion, finding that amusement diminished


       On the one hand, sadness may also diminish impatience, if the sadder-but-wiser effect

holds. On the other hand, given that amusement—a positive emotion—decreases impatience, it

may be that sadness—a negative emotion—increases impatience. In support of this view, sadness

has been shown to trigger a generalized devaluation of the self (7, 21), which may create an

urgent implicit desire to enhance what William James (22) called the “material self” by changing

one’s circumstances, perhaps by seeking immediate rewards. But it would be overly simple to
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hypothesize outcomes only on the basis of emotional valence. Results of prior research (23, 24)

can be interpreted to imply that only sadness, and not other negative emotions, should increase

impatience. Disgust should, if anything, diminish impatience, since it triggers a goal of expelling

rather than acquiring (25). Three experiments that randomly assigned decision-makers to

emotional states tested these hypotheses.

       Experiment 1. Experiment 1 induced 202 participants to feel sad, neutral, or disgusted

using standard video-watching and essay-writing protocols. The emotion-induction procedure

was effective in both magnitude and specificity for all three experiments. Sad-condition

participants reported feeling more sad (M = 3.72) than neutral (M = 1.66), t(78) = 6.72, p < .0001,

disgusted (M = 1.00), t(78) = 13.68, p < .0001, or any other measured negative emotion,

including anger (M = 1.30), t(78) = 13.50, p < .0001, and fear (M = 1.31), t(78) = 13.12, p < .001.

Comparable effects were found for neutral and disgust conditions.

       Participants then made 27 choices between receiving money today or more money in the

future (26). All three experiments used real financial consequences and followed standard

behavioral-economics methods for increasing the veracity of participants’ choices (27). From a

rational perspective, there should have been no carry-over of the incidental emotions induced by

the videos and writing to the financial decisions. Nonetheless, substantial carry-over occurred.

Sad participants were more impatient than neutral participants in their choices, i.e., more willing

to forego larger rewards in the future to obtain smaller rewards now. We fit choices to

exponential discounting functions and analyzed participants’ annual discount factors, such that

smaller discount factors are more impatient. Sad participants were more impatient, discounting

more (Mδ=.21, medianδ=.04) than neutral participants (Mδ=.28, medianδ=.19) [Mann-Whitney

Z=2.04, p=.04]. Whereas the median sad participant was willing to settle for $4 today instead of
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receiving $100 in a year, the median neutral participant required $19 today instead. Importantly,

disgusted participants (Mδ=.31, medianδ=.24) discounted about the same as neutral participants

[Z=.46, ns] and less than sad participants [Z=1.87, p=.06]. Results using a hyperbolic discounting

function were similar. Thus, sadder was not wiser for intertemporal choices. Even though

induced sadness should be irrelevant to these decisions, it increased preference for immediate

rewards whereas disgust did not.

       Experiment 2. Experiment 2 addressed two goals, first testing the reliability of this effect

using a web-based, nationwide sample. Second, it applied Query Theory (27), a psychological

process model of preference construction, to explain how intertemporal decisions are made

differently by individuals who feel sad versus disgusted or neutral. Query Theory assumes that

people implicitly and sequentially query their knowledge base for arguments that support either

of the two choice options, and that the first query retrieves more support than subsequent queries.

Because decision-makers who first think about the earlier option have been shown to be more

impatient (27), we hypothesized that sadness would make people more likely to first generate

reasons favoring the earlier reward, consistent with the notion that sad people seek self-

enhancement by acquiring external goods (21).

       Experiment 2 tested this hypothesis on 189 participants who—after emotion-induction—

were given a chance to win a $50 gift-certificate today or one for a larger amount

in three months. Participants provided their thoughts on this choice, made their decision, and

subsequently coded their thoughts on whether each one favored receiving the money now, later,

both, or neither.

       As in Experiment 1, sad participants were more impatient, requiring more additional

compensation to wait for three months (M=$30.72) than neutral participants (M=$22.72) [t=2.42,
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P<.05] or disgusted participants [(M=$22.74), t=2.39, P<.05]. This translated into steeper

discounting for sad (Mδ=.24) than neutral [(Mδ=.37), t=2.82, P<.01] or disgusted participants

[(Mδ=.37), t=2.67, P<.01].

       Participants listed up to 23 thoughts (M = 3.73, SD = 2.74, median = 3) about their

decisions. Of these thoughts, 40% were patient (favored receiving more money later), 39% were

impatient, and 21% were neither. Sad participants listed more impatient thoughts than both

neutral and disgusted participants (Msad = 1.73 vs. Mneutral = 1.22 and Mdisgust = 1.15, ts = 1.80 and

2.37, p = .07 and p < .05) but did not have significantly more patient thoughts (Msad = 1.58 vs.

Mneutral = 1.32 and Mdisgust = 1.37, ts = .82 and .62, ns). We analyzed the ordering of the listed

thoughts by calculating the standardized median rank difference (SMRD, 27, 28), with scores of

+1 corresponding to all “impatient” thoughts coming before all “patient” thoughts and scores of -

1 corresponding to the opposite. Sad participants generated impatient thoughts significantly

earlier (SMRD = .47) than neutral participants [(SMRD = .03), t = 2.88, p < .01] and disgusted

participants (SMRD = .005), t = 2.86, p < .01. SMRD scores fully mediated the difference in

discount factors between the sad participants and neutral participants (p < .01, bootstrapped

mediation) (29).

       Thus, sadness again induced greater impatience: sad participants valued $50 in three

months’ time $6.50 less than neutral or disgusted participants. Moreover, Experiment 2

identified a mechanism for how sadness affects impatience: Reasons for the immediate reward

came to mind sooner and more frequently when participants had been made sad as opposed to

disgusted or neutral.

       Experiment 3. Experiment 3 introduced a new question. Does sadness produce a general

increase in impatience or is its effect limited to choices offering an immediate payoff? A key
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innovation in modeling discounting distinguishes between two types of processes that are

represented in the quasi-hyperbolic discounting function, D(t)=βδt, for t > 0 (30, 31). One

process (δ) reflects economically-rational exponential discounting of rewards that is sensitive to

the length of delay, t. The other process, “present bias” (β), discounts all future rewards when

there is any delay (regardless of its length) and is therefore far from rational. We hypothesized

that sadness increases the desire to get something now, not just sooner, and should therefore

increase present bias (β) but not rational discounting (δ).

       To isolate the effect of sadness on present bias, Experiment 3 asked 203 participants—

induced to feel sad or neutral—to make 42 choices between immediate rewards versus later

rewards; or later rewards versus even later rewards. As predicted, sadness increased choices in

favor of immediate rewards but did not affect impatience in choices between later options. Sad

participants displayed more present-bias (Mβ=.94) than neutral participants [(Mβ=.98),

t(201)=1.94, p=.05], discounting all non-immediate rewards by almost four percentage points

more than neutral participants. In contrast, sad (Mδ=.23) and neutral (Mδ =.24) participants

discounted already delayed rewards equally, t(201)=.32, ns.


       In sum, these findings do not support the maxim that sadder is wiser. Sadness may make

people more accurate in some contexts (3), but it also makes them prefer immediate

gratification—not an attribute associated with wisdom. Across experiments, sadness increased

discounting by 35% to 79% relative to a neutral state. These differences emerged even though

real money was at stake in each experiment. Moreover, sadness increased present bias. Present

bias can be a particularly harmful form of impatience, as evidenced by the life outcomes

associated with Mischel and Ebbesen’s marshmallow experiments (described earlier).
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       Taken together, the results are consistent with the previously-tested hypothesis that

sadness is associated with both self-depletion and an implicit goal to enhance the self (7, 21). In

this case, decision makers may have chosen immediate rewards to bolster what William James

termed “the material self” (22). Indeed, the effects observed here were unique to sadness; they

did not hold in the disgust condition. This pattern implies that unique characteristics of

sadness—and not just a generalized negative mood—account for the findings.

       The present studies advance the literature in multiple ways. Whereas prior studies have

typically involved small samples, correlational designs, paradigms without quantifiable standards

for rationality, a lack of a comparison emotion, and tasks without real financial consequences,

the present studies improve upon each of these dimensions. They involved over 600 subjects

across different laboratories; experimental designs that allow causal conclusions; precise,

widely-accepted, and quantifiable normative standards; a comparison negative emotion (disgust);

and meaningful motivations (i.e., money) for participants to optimize choice outcomes.

       Despite the advances, a significant limitation remains. For ethical reasons we could

induce only low-intensity emotion. Assuming monotonicity, high-intensity sadness—such as

arises from the loss of a family member—may be expected to show far greater effects on the

high-stakes intertemporal decisions involved in settling a deceased person’s estate. But this

remains to be tested.

       Methodological and theoretical implications aside, the results also have implications for

the design of public policy. High-intensity sadness and depression are common experiences for

people who have lost their jobs. Our results suggest that such individuals might exacerbate their

financial hardship by making intertemporal consumption decisions that favor immediate

consumption more than is wise. Although the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
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has a “cooling-off rule,” giving individuals three days to cancel a sale, this rule exempts such

sales as 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. The results may also

assist in the identification of mental health mortality risk, as degree of discounting has been

shown to differentiate among individuals prone to serious-premeditated versus less serious-

unplanned suicidal acts (32). In this and other ways, public policy design and implementation

needs to take into consideration the full range of psychological processes through which

decisions are made (27, 33, 34).

       In conclusion, these experiments, combining methods from psychology and economics,

reliably reveal that sadder is not necessarily wiser. Instead, sadness made people more myopic,

and thus willing to forego greater later gains for instant gratification. Given the number of

societal problems resulting from a “need-it-now” mentality, these results may inform not only

theories of emotion and financial decision making but also the formation of powerful

interventions for optimizing decision-making environments (33).


       Experiment 1. We randomly assigned 202 participants (57% female; ages 18 to 63) to

either a neutral, sadness, or disgust condition. Each participant sat in a private cubicle within a

laboratory at a large Northeastern university. Drawing on established methods (7, 35), our

emotion-induction procedure was the same in all three experiments. Participants first watched

three-minute video clips about the death of a boy’s mentor (35) in the sadness condition, about

an unsanitary toilet (7) in the disgust condition, and about the Great Barrier Reef (7) in the

neutral-state condition. Depending on condition, participants next wrote an essay about a
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situation during which they had experienced sadness or disgust, or an essay about their nightly

activities. Both before the emotion-induction procedure and immediately after the choice task,

participants reported how intensely they felt 19 emotions, including emotions measuring sadness,

disgust, and a neutral state.

        Participants then made 27 choices between receiving cash amounts today (between $11-

$80) and larger cash amounts (between $25-$85) at points in the future ranging from one week to

six months (26). Following standard procedures (27), we incentivized participants to express

their true preferences by randomly selecting one of the choice pairs for one of the participants in

each session (median of 13 participants per session) and paying out that person’s preferred

alternative. Choices of a reward that day were paid at the end of the session in cash. Later

rewards were paid by a check mailed at the later time.

        We used maximum likelihood estimation to fit participants’ choices to an exponential

discounting function, D(t) = δt, where smaller values of δ indicate more impatience. We also

replicated all results by fitting participants’ choices to a hyperbolic discounting function, D(t) =

(1 + κ·t)-1, where larger values of κ and smaller values for D indicate more impatience. All

results were similar across both discounting functions for Experiments 1 and 2.

        Experiment 2. One hundred and eighty-nine participants (133 females, 56 males; age

range from 19-69 years, with a mean of 40) from the Columbia University Center for Decision

Sciences Virtual Lab participant pool responded to an email solicitation for this online study. All

procedures other than the intertemporal choice task were the same as in Experiment 1. After the

emotion induction procedure, participants were given a chance to win an gift

certificate worth $50 now or a larger amount in three months, in addition to a $5 fee for

completing the study (27). This titration task asked participants to make 11 choices between
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receiving $50 today or amounts between $55 and $105 (in $5 increments) in three months. We

calculated discount rates at the implied indifference point midway between where participants

preferred the earlier versus later payments. We incentivized participants to express their true

preferences by randomly selecting 1 out of every 50 participants to have one of their choices

played out for real. All gift certificates were sent electronically.

        Thought listing. After the emotion induction procedure and after being told about the

upcoming choice between receiving $50 now or a larger amount in three months, but before

making the actual decisions, participants were asked to indicate what was going through their

mind as they thought about this decision, using an established thought-listing protocol (27).

Participants typed their thoughts into a customized interactive web form one thought at a time for

as many thoughts as they could think of. Participants had previously practiced listing thoughts

this way at the beginning of the study. After making the actual decisions, they were later shown

their previously listed thoughts, one at a time, and asked to indicate whether each favored

receiving the money now, later, both, or neither.

        Experiment 3. In Experiment 3, all procedures other than the intertemporal choice task

were the same as in the first two experiments, except that disgust was not studied. After the

emotion induction, a total of 203 participants in two labs (66.5% female, median age of 34.5)

made 42 choices (36) between receiving smaller cash amounts (between $6-$40) earlier (today, 2

weeks from today, or 4 weeks from today) and larger cash amounts (between $7-$57) later (2, 4,

or 6 weeks from today). As before, we incentivized participants by randomly selecting a portion

of the participants to have one of their choices played out for real. Participants’ choices were fit

to the quasi-hyperbolic discounting function (30, 31) using maximum-likelihood estimation.
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Acknowledgments: This research was supported by NSF grants PECASE SES-0239637 and

SES-0820441 to Lerner and SES-0820496 to Weber. We thank Viral Gandhi and Irving

Dominguez as well as Cindy Cryder, Ron Dahl, Mark Edington, Dan Gilbert, Jennifer Gross,

Dave Hardisty, Yoel Inbar, George Loewenstein, Eric Mattison, Nicole Otchy, and Deborah

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Figure Legends

Figure 1. Average patience levels in choices between rewards today or later, as determined by

exponential discounting (δ) in experiments 1 and 2. Closer to 1 is more patient. Error bars

represent ±1SEM.

Figure 2. Average patience levels in choices between rewards today or later, or between rewards

later or even later, as modeled by quasi-hyperbolic discounting, in experiment 3. Closer to 1 is

more patient. Error bars represent ±1SEM. (A) Rational discounting. (B) Present bias

(discounting of non-immediate rewards).

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