Why You Should Shop For Cars When You’re Grumpy

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Nearly all accounts about why people have the tastes and preferences that they do center around the idea that the human brain has been “wired” to have those tastes and preferences because of advantages they provided to our distant ancestors in the struggle for survival.

We’ve used this language ourselves from time to time since the beginning of our collaboration. The problem with such accounts is that we don’t know all that much about the conditions of human life in our long evolutionary past, so we don’t really know a lot about what traits and behaviors would have been most advantageous. Some evolutionary accounts, then, are little more than glib speculations.

That said, certain evolutionary psychology explanations are more compelling than others, which brings us to some recent work by Dan King and Chris Janiszewski, marketing professors at National University of Singapore and the University of Florida, respectively. They start by citing research showing that people (mammals generally, in fact) are more sensitive to tactile stimulation when in a bad mood and more sensitive to visual information when in a good mood. They argue that this differential sensitivity to touch and sight has an evolutionary explanation: It aids an organism’s survival.

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People—or any organism advanced enough to have moods—are in a sour state when the environment is hostile and they’re cold, hungry, tired or otherwise in need of protection from others. Hence the greater receptivity to touch—to accepting physical comfort. Conversely, people are in good moods when the environment is kind and the time ripe for seeking out new and better sources of food, water and shelter. Hence the greater receptivity to visual stimuli—to looking around and ahead.

It’s an intriguing argument, with some surprising implications. King and Janiszewski report the results of five studies that show how our differential sensitivity to sight and touch when in good and bad moods influences the products we find most appealing and how much we’re willing to pay for them.

For example, participants in one study were asked to try a light blue hand lotion (in a clear plastic bottle with a pump top) and to describe their experience. Those who had earlier undergone a procedure (non-harmful!) to put them in a bad mood tended to talk about how the product felt (“feels smooth and silky”) whereas those who had earlier been put in a good mood tended to talk about its appearance (“looks like the ocean”).

In another study, King and Janiszewski degraded the tactical quality of the lotion and found that it reduced how much those in a bad mood were willing to pay for it, but had no effect on how much those in a good mood were willing to spend. In still another study, they enhanced the visual appearance of the product and found that it increased how much participants in a good mood were willing to pay for it, but had no effect on participants in a bad mood.

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Fascinating stuff, for sure. And perhaps the first thing we ought to do is advise you, with tongue firmly in cheek, to avoid shopping for certain items or services (art, jewelry, cars, TVs, plastic surgery, goldfish) when you’re in a good mood and others (clothes, produce, bedding, massages, furniture, dogs) when you’re in a bad one—you’ll pay far more for preferred choices than you otherwise would.

But we also see this research as a great excuse to remind you that emotion, mood and feelings play a far more complex role in our financial decisions than we might have imagined. All the more reason to make any money decisions of consequence in consultation with someone you trust and in a time frame that allows, at least in part, for the effects of any particular mood to be washed away. You might not stop desiring a coveted purchase if you bookmark it for tomorrow, but you might not be willing to pay as much for it.