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A lot of people have been pretty cooped up lately and it’s starting to bring out some strange desires in people. What context can psychology offer to help us understand what might be going on?

Hosted by: Anthony Brown
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As a heads-up, we talk a lot about mortality in this video, so if that’s not something you want to engage with right now, feel free to check out one of our other episodes in the meantime. [♩INTRO].

A lot of people have been pretty cooped up lately, thanks to… the state of things. And it’s starting to bring out some strange desires in people.

Like the desire to pick up the ukulele or set up a cute tent for your dog. And, sure, if you’ve got some extra time on your hands, why not pick up a new hobby, or make some improvements to your home? Maybe buy a fun new toy?

But that doesn’t totally explain all the strange desires that have emerged in the last few months. Now, we can’t say for sure what that’s all about, because studies haven’t targeted that particular side-effect of the pandemic yet, but past psychological research can offer us some context to help understand what might be going on. Stress affects people’s behavior in lots of ways, but one of the more obvious ways some people respond to stress is by buying things.

And that stress-buying has a psychological name: retail therapy. Because buying things actually does have a psychological effect. It’s been shown to improve people’s mood, and research has found that people report a stronger sense of control when they shop for something they want.

Also, unlike a lot of quick fixes for stress, it doesn’t tend to be followed by regret or guilt, as long as they don’t go overboard. Which makes it a common outlet for some people when they feel like things are uncertain or beyond their control. And that’s something a lot of people are feeling these days which might explain the random instinct to, I don’t know, buy a ukulele… but retail therapy doesn’t necessarily explain why people are investing in such bizarre things now.

However, the source of our stress could shed some light on that. For many people, the pandemic has caused a specific kind of stress:. It’s made us more aware of our mortality, which is known in psychology as mortality salience.

And overall, mortality salience tends to make people behave in ways that reinforce their sense of identity. Researchers think it serves as a sort of defense mechanism against the threat of no longer existing. So, under these circumstances, people tend to want to buy things or engage in activities that are in line with the way they think of themselves.

For example, according to a study published in the. Journal of Research for Consumers in 2013, mortality salience makes some people more interested in starting creative projects, specifically people who think of themselves as creative. Which could have something to do with why people are suddenly springing for things like musical instruments or getting into bread-baking.

But since people’s response to mortality salience is tied to their sense of identity, how people respond to the same event can be very different. A 2002 study found that while some people react by turning inward and trying to stay safe, other people start taking more risks, doing things they never had the guts to do. Like, buying a home piercing kit or trying a new color of hair dye might help someone solidify an image of themselves as adventurous or artsy.

Another common response to this type of existential fear is nostalgia, which is one way people reinforce their sense of self and sense of comfort during hard times. In a paper published in 2008, scientists found that people who had positive reflections on the past perceived their lives as more meaningful. The researchers also looked specifically at how people use nostalgia to cope with thoughts of death, and they found that those who were more nostalgic were less concerned about their mortality.

Now, that may or may not be why roller skates are suddenly making a comeback, but researchers have suggested that nostalgia is one way people are coping with the feelings of loss and stress that have come from the pandemic. Of course, mortality salience isn’t the only thing going on right now. Many people are just spending more time at home and exploring new ways to stay entertained.

On top of that, everyone’s going through something different, and everyone brings different parts of their personality to the table, so there’s no single reason why people suddenly want the things they do. But even though this pandemic is a different experience for everyone, there are good reasons why many people may suddenly be having unusual desires we’re all getting used to a new way of life, and for some of us, that new life is a little better if it includes a ukulele or a happy dog. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

And if you liked it, you might enjoy our episode on what causes food cravings, which you can watch right after this. [♩OUTRO].