Page last updated at 07:09 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The psychological cost of Christmas

Tom Fawcett
Dr Tom Fawcett

Christmas shoppers
Offers may tempt people to spend a little more

Despite the credit crunch, the nation's High Streets are still seeing Christmas shoppers laden with bags.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, Dr Tom Fawcett from the University of Salford warns people can't resist the desire to be seen as generous - but may be storing up psychological as well as financial trouble for the New Year.

The festive season is a time for joyous celebration, feeling good about yourself and making others feel happy.

This was obvious when I observed Christmas shoppers milling around the new Liverpool 1 shopping mall last weekend, even though the country was in the midst of its worst recession in over 30 years.

Interest rates had just dropped another 1%, VAT had been reduced and Christmas sales were prominent in many shops, all enticing people to spend, spend, spend.

'Make someone happy'

Shopping does have an element of happiness about it.

But it can also sometimes be inked to a feeling of uncomfortable tension derived from experiencing conflicting thoughts - "Can I really afford this?" - and the need to satisfy one's generosity - "It will really make someone happier at Christmas if I buy it".

Excessive spending at Christmas can result in people experiencing a miserable time afterwards when debts have to be repaid

This feeling of uncomfortable tension as a result of conflicting thoughts and actions has been explained as "cognitive dissonance" by psychologists.

This is particularly relevant in festive shopping when personal finances are being stretched.

At Christmas, people are challenged with what can be considered to be a moral form of cognitive dissonance, when people are torn between balancing their finances and the wish to make others and themselves happier - which is the societal expectation of what Christmas is really all about.

Knowing they may well not be able to afford what they are buying, people freely enter into transactions encouraged by heavy marketing influences.

And they will try to reduce their internal psychological conflict in order to justify their actions.

They will explain that their happiness and that of others is more important than their debt, that others cannot do without when people around them are receiving and being happy and that, above all, Christmas is a time for giving and sharing and the spirit of Christmas should be encouraged in a time of nationwide gloom.


Such actions are typical responses when people are experiencing dissonance.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief.

If I believe I am good - managing my finances to reduce debt - but do something bad - spend freely at Christmas - then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

The resultant effect can be extremely negative in the long term when the reality of the dissonance is exposed.

Scrubbing up

The BBC News website is launching the "Scrubbing Up" weekly column, where leading clinicians and experts give their perspectives on issues in health
Each week, you will be able to have your say

Excessive spending at Christmas can result in people experiencing a miserable time afterwards when debts have to be repaid.

Those people who enter into a festive spending spree knowing they really are stretched financially display an inability to rationalise and explain away the conflict.

In some ways they go into denial and may wish to ignore the issue until a later date, but pay heavy personal consequences.


It's a Christmas bubble - and bubbles burst.

If people do lose control of their spending and shop in denial there can be a massive loss of confidence and self-esteem.

People can even slip into a mild or chronic depression due to the negative financial consequences and loss of self respect.

Once people wake up from their denial, especially if they don't have a support network and feel isolated, they can become very low psychologically and emotionally.

People can end up with problems in other areas of their lives, like relationships and work.

And in January or February when the bills come in, those people who wanted to know them when they were being generous at Christmas won't be around any more, and they will be left to sort things out on their own.

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