Consumed

The psychology of what we buy, how we choose, and why we need to make sense of it all.

Warm and Fuzzy: Temperature and Consumer Behavior

Warmth makes us feel closer to others—and gets us closer to buying.

According to the embodied cognition perspective, physical experiences directly affect the way we think. You may have heard that holding a warm as opposed to cold beverage will make you perceive more warmth in a stranger’s personality. But have you considered that temperature also influences the preferences you express as a consumer? There’s now growing evidence from embodied cognition research in favor of this link. Clearly, ice cream sales will be higher on a hot summer’s day, but there are much less obvious effects that temperature can have on our choices.

Laboratory experiments by Jiewen Hong and Yacheng Sun have shown that a cold drink or sitting in a cold room increases people’s liking of romance movies. This only happens if people associate those movies with psychological warmth, as shown below.

The same researchers examined data provided by a movies-by-mail company and found that people are more likely to rent romance movies on days with cold weather. Preferences for other genres, such as comedy and drama, are relatively unaffected by temperature.

A couple of brand new articles, about to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, focus on the effect of warmth on consumer choices. The first of these, by Xun Huang and colleagues, shows that consumers are more likely to rely on other people’s opinion (as evident in a product’s market share, for example) when they express product preferences in warm (75-77 °F/24-25 °C) rather than cool (61-63 °F/16-17 °C) rooms. According to the research, this is not due to people somehow feeling more depleted as a result of higher temperature.

When it’s warm, people also tend to conform to others’ prediction in buying or selling stock. An analysis of data from a three-year period about the weather and betting on a racetrack showed similar results. When temperatures at the track were warm, bets were more likely to converge on the “favorite” endorsed by the majority.

Why does this happen? The explanation provided by Huang and her collaborators focuses on perceptions of social closeness. Low temperatures increase our desire for warmth and closeness, as shown in more rentals of romance movies. High temperatures increase actual feelings of closeness, as evident in relying on others’ opinions about consumer products or bets on a racecourse.

But the link between temperature and perceptions of closeness is not just about other people, it can even affect the closeness we feel to products themselves. In one study conducted by Yonat Zwebner and others, experimental participants were asked to hold and examine either a warm (113 °F/45 °C) or a cool (54 °F/12 °C) therapeutic pad for a few seconds. In a purportedly unrelated task, they were asked how much they would be willing to pay for a six-pack of batteries and a chocolate cake. Participants were willing to pay significantly more for both products when they held a warm pad than when they held a cold pad.

The same manipulation was used in another experiment, asking people to evaluate (but not touch) a pen after they handled the pad. At the end of the study, they could choose either cash or the pen as a reward for their participation in the research. People chose the pen over cash 74% of the time after they had been exposed to the warm pad, but only 47% of the time if they had been exposed to the cold pad.

Finally, Zwebner and her colleagues looked into data from an online price-comparison shopping portal. The website featured a “To-Purchase” button for products, which allowed shoppers to access a seller’s website. Clicks provided information about consumers’ intention to purchase. The researchers statistically analyzed average daily temperatures and millions of clicks associated with eight product categories that occurred over the course of two years. They once again found a relationship between temperature and intention to purchase, as shown on the chart below. The relationship isn’t linear. Once the mercury reaches the temperature of a hot summer’s day, the relationship between warmer weather and purchase intention begins to weaken, as extra degrees are less and less associated with additional clicks.

 

 Are you warming to the idea of embodied cognition?

 

 

Available from July 2014: The Behavioral Economics Guide 2014 on BehavioralEconomics.com (free download)

Alain Samson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist who works as a senior consultant at the London School of Economics and as a scientific advisor at BrainJuicer Labs.

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