Small splurges, large benefits

Selin Atalay, Professor of Marketing - October 15th, 2008
Gift - Small splurges, large benefits

Key ideas

• Buying a gift for oneself when feeling down really does boost people’s mood!

• Consumers spend reasonably on such purchases and have no regrets about them afterwards.

• Self-gifts are a learned mood-improving practice specific to Western cultures.  

Selin Atalay ©HEC Paris

Selin Atalay tought psychology of decision-making and experimental design at HEC between 2008 and 2014. She initially studied psychology at Istanbul's Bogazici University in (...)

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Up until now, impulsive and unplanned shopping has most often been looked at from a negative perspective focusing on its excessive and even harmful forms: over-indulgence in alcohol or drugs, overspending… But Selin Atalay and her research partner Margaret Meloy have examined the positive side of the issue, and they have proven that consumption is also a constructive, healthy behavior. Everyone has mood swings, and when people are feeling down, shopping and indulging in a feel-good gift for oneself reflects people’s instinct toward self-repair. Atalay and Meloy refer to such purchases as “self treats” and specify that they do notentail harmful consequences. In short, unplanned self-treats present benefits for the consumer…and thus the manufacturer…


Research on mood-related behavior has consistently documented that bad moods have a “spill over effect”, so if someone is in a bad mood when at a restaurant or vacation destination, for instance, he or she will retain negative feelings about the place where the mood was experienced. However, this does not happen when it comes to self-treat purchases made to improve a bad mood.

• People in a bad mood do not project their pessimistic feelings onto the items they buy when in this state. They end up neither disliking nor regretting the items bought when feeling down.

• So managers need not worry about consumers developing negative feelings about their products due to any association with the blues.

• Though most commonly unplanned, self-treats are nonetheless items that people need, want, and can afford. These purchases involve reflection, analysis, and recognition of the potential for positive feelings (mood improvement) resulting from the purchase.


Atalay stresses the difference between instinct and impulse. While the latter implies a lack of self control and an absence of reasoning, her study highlights the intelligence of human instinct and people’s ability to effectively manage their actions. When people are feeling low, they seek out activities that will make them feel good and, when in a good mood, they engage in activities likely to prolong this feeling.

• People buy themselves gifts not only to boost their mood, but also to celebrate events like project success or a promotion, instinctively aiming to make the good feelings last. Furthermore, they spend more in this case than when striving to boost a temporarily bad mood. There is also a decidedly learned side of the issue. Atalay’s study shows that positive or negative associations withconsumption are learned.

• People are happy to learn anything that will help them improve their mood. If you teach them that exercising restraint with regard to consumption is “good”, they will be both capable and happy to behave in this way.

• The study was conducted in the United States, but the fact that people’s moods improve when they buy themselves a treat is a reflection of Western culture in general, in which material possessions and individual satisfaction are highly valued.

• Motivation is a cognitive process that remains stable over time.

• Gender is only likely to make a difference with regard to what people buy. So while women often indulge in clothing or accessories, men lean toward electronics or sporting goods…


While pleased to set the scales straight by proving that consumption and indulgence can be perfectly healthy, constructive behaviors, Atalay stresses that using this knowledge raises ethical issues. She urges managers not to misuse this information and insists that the study should not be interpreted as an endorsement of over-consumption, encouragement of impulsive buying, or justification for consumer manipulation…


Contrary to popular belief, and to the surprise of researchers, men are in fact just aslikely as women to seek out the mood-boosting benefits of retail therapy.“Self-treating is a robust phenomenon for both genders,” the authors write. Similarly, neither age, income, nor education are significant. “The sole predictor of an unplanned treat purchase was a temporary negative mood.”

Based on an interview with Selin ATALAY, professor of marketing, and on the article “Retail Therapy: A Positive Consumer Behavior” by Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy. 

From the lab to the workplace
From the lab to the workplace

• Product sizing: To boost their mood, people look for “small indulgences” that they both feel good about and are easy to justify. Manufacturers might therefore consider making smaller-sized product options available.

• Product design and marketing: Highlighting the health or self-improvement benefits of a product is likely to attract the attention of the consumers in question. They are not looking for a specific item, but rather something that will make them feel good right away… and the morning after! 


Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy conducted three complementary studies: a field study on unplanned self-gifts in an American shopping mall involving 220 shoppers of ages 18 to 80; lab experiments with 44 undergraduates to study gender, motivation and self-regulation; assessment of 2 consumption diaries to assess short and long term benefits of unplanned self-treats.