Sadder, but Not Wiser: The Myopia of Misery


Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., & Weber, E. U. (Working Paper). Sadder, but Not Wiser: The Myopia of Misery.


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 discussed.