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The Psychology of Money: How Our Emotions Affect What We Buy

You can rely on your current affective state as a proxy for your preferences,

This week I am re-posting (with permission) an entry by TipTap Lab.

You walk into a clothing store, just to browse. A shirt catches your eye and without comparing the quality of the materials or craftsmanship to those of the shirt next to it, and even before fully comparing the styles of the two, you know you want it. It’s just so you. All rational thought (“I already have a few shirts like that one”) seems to go out the window as self-illusory hedonism takes over and you indulge in the purchase.

The above scenario is – most likely – all too familiar and is a perfect example of how we, as consumers making judgments, are prone to rely on our feelings and emotions, momentarily letting our cognitive evaluations lapse. Of course, this isn’t always the case – if you’ve put time in research into a decision you won’t be as easily swayed by an alternative option. But, if you haven’t, and there are time constraints on your decision or little other available information, falling back on feelings is our default response.

Emotional associations with brands grow out of our experiences with them, and, over time, are linked in memory to said brands in a non-conscious way. When a memory is recalled, not only are the cognitive associations of a brand recalled, such as benefits or features, but also the emotional ‘feelings’ about the brand. Often times it is difficult for consumers (or rather, decision makers in general) to verbalize the exact reasons for our feelings. This is because formation of an emotional judgment involves holistic perception. When we take in all of the characteristics of something, but form one singular opinion, we are not able to trace the origin of this opinion back to the individual component attributes.

Advertisements with the intent of eliciting emotional responses from the consumer have become embedded in our culture – from ‘Nothin’ Says Lovin’ Like Somethin’ in the Oven’ (Pillsbury), to ‘For all you do, this Bud’s for you’ (Budweiser) and ‘There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else there’s MasterCard’.

But using emotional responses is not as straightforward as just presenting happy and cheery images. The consumer’s current state of mind influences the emotional outcome of viewing an advertisement. That is, consumers make choices that are consistent with a desire to manage their level of emotional arousal.

When experiencing a pleasant affective state (for example ‘excited’, which is pleasant and high arousal or ‘relaxed’, which is pleasant and low arousal), consumers tend to prefer more arousing products when their current arousal is high (the excited case) and less arousing products when their current arousal is low (the relaxed case). In other words, they choose products that will maintain their original positive affective state. For example, if you’re in a great mood and full of energy (high arousal) you would probably opt for an energy drink over calming tea. Conversely, if you were in a pleasant mood but feeling relaxed (low arousal), you might be more likely to reach for that kettle.

When experiencing an unpleasant affective state, consumers tend to prefer less arousing products if their current arousal is high and more arousing products if their current arousal is low. In these situations, the consumer is trying to change their affective state (since it is unpleasant) and thus they will choose products whose level of arousal is opposite of their own current level. For example, if you are experiencing an unpleasant, low arousal state such as boredom you will be more inclined to choose a high arousal product -- maybe a new action-based video game -- because you find your low arousal state unpleasant and would like to change it. If you were to find yourself in an unpleasant high arousal state, such as one of frustration or anxiety, you would opt for a low arousal product -- for example an historical documentary -- to try to change your state of arousal. The context specificity of the effect of arousal states on product choice is important to understand as it can be used to help guide ad design and placement based on the environment (for retail scenarios) or the preceding programming (for TV based advertising.)

Latent emotional messages are certainly important in advertisements and go hand in hand with another important aspect of marketing: brand icons and the branded name. The inherent iconicity of advertising images means that they are soaked with meaning and are necessarily coded. The source? The variety of emotions to which we are already attuned via our interactions with our social and natural environments. That is, we already have opinions and emotions on any number of things in our everyday life, most that we are not even aware of. Furthermore, pictures and icons, as opposed to verbal reports, tend to elicit a more vivid and holistic emotional response that has a powerful effect on attitudes and behavior.

So how can all of this knowledge be applied? Research on affect as information suggests that people rely on their current affective state as a proxy for their preferences (Raghunathan and Pham 1999; Raghunathan et al. 2006). That is, when faced with a choice between different products, consumers ask themselves, “What would I feel better about?” (Pham 2009). When creating and managing a brand visually it is crucial to tap into the hidden world of coded associations and keep brand imaging and personality consistent so that consumers can create connections that can be relied upon. In one of his books, Philip Kotler recognizes the need to move from product and/or consumer-based marketing strategies to more holistic strategies that appeal to the whole person. The optimal tactic would be to include both cognitive and affective messages in the marketing strategy. Another strategy might be to include the use of subtle emotional appeals as consumers with high levels of emotional intelligence might delay decision-making when presented with strong emotional appeals.

Beyond The Purchase is a website dedicated to understanding the psychology behind spending decisions and the relationship between money and happiness. We study how factors like your values and personality interact with spending decisions to affect your happiness. At Beyond The Purchase you can take quizzes that help you understand what motivates your spending decisions, and you’ll get personalized feedback and tips. For example:

How do you score on the five fundamental dimensions of personality? Take our Big Five personality test and find out.

How do you feel about your past, present, and future? Take the Time Attitudes Survey and learn about your relation with time.

How happy are your Facebook updates? We can analyze your last 25 Facebook status updates and determine how happy you have been.

How happy is your subconscious? Take our Happiness IAT and find out.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

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