All debts are hard to bear. But new research appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that there is something particularly bad about student debt.
According to the researchers, led by Adam Greenberg from Bocconi University in Italy, it has to do with how we mentally categorize different types of debt. Home loans, for example, are more or less seen as an investment and not a debt. Credit card debt is considered an expense or a “cost of living”. Student debt, on the other hand, is increasingly seen as a struggle of Sisyphus – a sentiment aptly reflected in the following response submitted by a participant in Greenberg’s study:
“My family has a mortgage which, for me, is not really a debt but rather an investment. I used to feel the same about student loans until you ended up graduating but were unable to find a career in your field. Then it’s just awful debt.
“We have found that the extent to which consumers mentally label a given type of debt as ‘debt’ results in the emotional consequences of those debt securities,” Greenberg and his team say. “Compared to other types of debt, student loans are viewed more as ‘debt’. Taken together, the results suggest that taking on debt can spill over and harm people’s overall subjective well-being, especially when their debt is perceived to be so.”
To come to this conclusion, the researchers looked at data from more than 5,800 American adults who reported the amount of student debt, credit card debt, and mortgage debt they currently held. The data also included a measure of life satisfaction (“How would you rate your life in general these days? “), which allowed researchers to test the association between the three forms of debt and current happiness.
They found that student debt was the only form of debt associated with lower levels of life satisfaction: the more student loan debt a person had, the less likely they were to rank high in terms of life satisfaction.
The researchers’ best explanation for this pattern of results was that student loan debt is somehow viewed as psychologically heavier than other forms of debt. To test this idea, they conducted a follow-up study in which they asked 1,008 American adults if they had any of these three forms of debt and, if so, to rate how well they perceived it. their mortgage, credit card and / or student loans as “debt” (1 = not at all, 7 = a lot).
The results supported their hypothesis: people were much more likely to view their student loans as “debt” than mortgages and credit card balances.
The authors conclude: “Consistent with the argument that the relationship between money and subjective well-being may have more to do with how consumers spend their money than how much money they have, this research suggests that the relationship between debt and subjective well-being may have more to do with what consumers borrow money for than how much they owe.