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Exposing Singles to Love Triggers Depression, Worthlessness

Update Date: Mar 14, 2014 07:20 PM EDT

Watching commercials depicting happy couples and families may actually trigger depression and feelings of worthlessness in single people, new findings suggest.

Researchers found that happy couples in commercials and advertising actually negatively affect singles by reducing their self-esteem to the point they cease to believe they deserve good things.

The latest study conducted at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business found that reminding people of relationships they don't have lowers their sense of self-worth and "triggers them to restrict their own indulgent consumption."

"By reminding people of relationships they don't have, marketers inadvertently make consumers feel undeserving -- less worthy of treating and rewarding themselves," consumer psychologist Lisa Cavanaugh, assistant professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, said in a news release.

Researchers said the latest findings go against the idea of "retail therapy" as it shows that people who feel less deserving spend less money, choose cheaper brands and products and eat lower-calorie foods. Researchers also found that singles feel especially worse during holidays and wedding seasons. The findings suggest singles may be more depressed during holiday season they are routinely exposed to advertisements depicting happy relationships.

"Marketers may need to rethink the prevalent practice of using images of idealized relationships to sell everything from cookies to cameras," Cavanaugh said. "Because many consumers don't have those relationships."

"Perceived deservingness carries over to affect subsequent choices across multiple product categories -- everything from the foods you choose to the amount of money you're willing to spend on clothing, accessories and even personal care products across retailers," she said.

Researcher conducted a series of experiments in which participants were exposed to different types of relationship reminders like advertisements, greeting cards, and newspaper articles. The study, which asked participants to choose between economy, mid-range or higher-end brands of lip balm, shampoo, hand lotion and perfume, and found that single consumers tended to choose fewer high-end personal care products when they were exposed to romantic relationships. However, singles tended to indulge more when they're reminded of platonic relationships.

"It is commonly assumed that when people lack valued relationships, they will feel lonely or sad and indulge more, through shopping or eating," said Cavanaugh.

"My theory and findings based on deservingness suggest a very different pattern of behavior: Individuals choose in ways consistent with their perceptions of deservingness," she added.

The latest findings are presented in "Because I (Don't) Deserve It: How Relationship Reminders and Deservingness Influence Consumer Indulgence," forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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