Breathe Deep...?

Is it really a good idea to relax before making an important decision?

Posted Feb 12, 2013

This past weekend, the most emailed article in the New York Times was one extolling all of the various benefits of relaxing, and how important it is to stop and take a step back. Undeniably, relaxing and refocusing can be incredibly beneficial. I’m sure this is what led me, as an 8-year-old, to request Bobby McFerrin’s soothing anthem, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” every time my mom drove me to swimming lessons (not sure what I was so afraid of, but apparently I hated swimming).

Yet, is relaxation always helpful? New research by Michel Pham, Iris Hung, and Gerald Gorn suggests that when making an important decision, especially one that involves money, it may not be.

Here’s the punchline: across several studies, research participants who were put into a relaxed state opted to pay more for a variety of goods and services compared to people who were feeling positive, but not necessarily relaxed. To the extent that paying more for something isn’t a good thing (if you’re the consumer), then relaxation might be harming decision-making. “Sure,” you might say, “those silly relaxed research participants just let their guards down, that makes sense.” But the reason underlying these results is a bit more interesting, and complicated, than simply a lack of decision-making vigilance. To better understand the effect of relaxation on decision-making, two previous lines of work are relevant.

First, states of relaxation have been found to promote a broader way of thinking: people who are relaxed are more likely to see the “big picture” and come up with creative answers to decision-making dilemmas. These findings are derived from Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, which in a nutshell suggests that negative emotions tend to narrow attention (so that in a dangerous situation, we can figure out exactly what our best course of action is) while positive emotions tend to broaden attention (so that we can learn from, explore, and appreciate the environment around us).

Second, another line of work suggests that the way we construe objects and actions –either abstractly or concretely – can drastically change the meaning of those things. Thinking about actions in an abstract way puts our focus on big picture goals (or “superordinate goals”), while thinking about things in a concrete way directs our focus to details (or “subordinate” goals). For example, if you think about being a new parent in an abstract way then you’ll probably conjure up thoughts of bringing another person into the world, providing them with love, and nurturing their development. By contrast, if you think about being a new parent in a more concrete way, then you’ll most likely think about changing diapers, not sleeping, and constructing a new crib.

When thinking about a given activity (e.g., going to college), abstract construals lead to an evaluation of how desirable that activity is (e.g., pursuing knowledge) while concrete construals lead to an evaluation of how feasible that activity is (e.g., going to class, taking exams). But how can construal level affect decisions? Well, imagine you’re thinking about buying an expensive business class airplane ticket. An abstract construal might lead you to think about your higher-order goals (“I’ll be more productive”), whereas a concrete construal might cause you to consider lower-level aspects (“I’ll have more leg room”). Not surprisingly, the former might lead you to place greater value on that ticket than the latter would.

When we take these two lines of research together and apply them to decision-making, we’re left with the following chain of action: relaxation leads to an abstract way of thinking, and abstract thinking leads people to think about the desirable big-picture properties of a product or activity rather than their low-level, concrete properties. For example, if you’re feeling relaxed and considering buying a new computer, you might think about about what the computer could do for you (e.g., surf the web faster or work easier). But if you’re not relaxed, you might instead consider lower level, more concrete aspects of the computer (e.g., how big is the hard drive, how expensive is it, and whether you can afford it).

In six studies, Pham and colleagues consistently found that the more relaxed their research participants were, the higher the monetary value they placed on a variety of goods. In one study, for example, the researchers induced a state of relaxation by showing participants a 10-minute video of nature scenes with soothing music in the background. A control group got an equally positive, but less relaxing video (about the future roles that robots will play in society). After watching these videos, all participants rated how much each of 10 products was worth. Across the board, the relaxed subjects valued the products more highly than did the less relaxed subjects.

In another study, the researchers tested the mechanism at play here by directly manipulating participants’ level of construal. To create an abstract level of construal, they had participants think about a higher-order category to which a series of items belonged (e.g., “A magazine is an example of ____”), and to create a concrete level of construal, they had participants think about lower-order category that would belong to each item (e.g., “An example of a magazine is ____”). As expected, participants who were prompted to think in an abstract way overvalued a series of products compared to participants who were directed to think in a more concrete way.

Importantly, and here’s a good takeaway for the next time you’re contemplating a big decision while feeling particularly relaxed: the negative effect of relaxation on purchase decisions is easily removed. Namely, relaxed participants who were prompted to think concretely, rather than abstractly, no longer overvalued subsequent products.