Mind & Body

When You're Cold, You Make Decisions in the Heat of the Moment

In 2005, the New York Times sent a reporter into department stores around town with a professional-grade thermometer. They found that the higher a store's prices, the lower it set the thermostat. The Times explained that this was a hidden status symbol — it was the peak of summer, and air conditioning costs money, after all — but according to new research, there might be more to it. Cold temperatures don't just make a place feel richer; they might actually change the way customers make decisions.

Related Video: How Color Affects Your Buying Decisions

I Heat Up, I Can't Cool Down

Considering how people regularly refer to people's emotional state and ability to reason using temperature words — that guy is "hotheaded," she was "cool as a cucumber" — it might not be surprising that the two would be linked. People given a warm cup or heat pack to hold, for example, have been shown to be more trusting with their money, more giving, and more likely to judge other people as (metaphorically) warm than people who were primed with something cold. And just being cold might be enough to make you seek out metaphorical warmth: Studies have found that people are more likely to rent romance movies and listen to nostalgic music when they're chilly.

For a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research last month, researchers Rhonda Hadi and Lauren Block wanted to take those observations one step further: Instead of studying what consumers choose, they wanted to see how they chose. Their hunch was that since people seek out metaphorical warmth when they're cold, cold temperatures would lead consumers to rely more on emotion when they made decisions.

Capitalism on Ice

First, they performed an online experiment to find out if relying on emotion actually made people feel physically warmer. They asked online participants (all of whom had thermostats, so could report the actual temperature in their rooms) to look at a series of advertisements and assess them with either a focus on their feelings or an emphasis on pure reason. Sure enough, those who focused on their feelings felt physically warmer afterward than those who used cold, hard logic.

Next, they brought people into the lab to see how this worked in person. In one experiment, they gave participants either a cold or warm cup to hold and had them read about an endangered-panda rescue effort in Asia. Those holding cold cups were significantly more likely to donate money to the cause than those holding warm cups, suggesting that they were more moved by their emotional reaction to the animals. That's contrary to previous research, which demonstrated that people primed with warm temperatures acted more generously. It may be that in this case, the ongoing cold (rather than 10 seconds in the beginning, as in previous studies) motivated people to seek out feelings that would make them warm.

In another experiment, they adjusted the actual room temperature and had participants imagine that they were moving across the country and needed to insure their belongings in case of damage. One such belonging was an old clock that was broken and financially worthless but had been given to them as a child and had a lot of sentimental value. Sure enough, people in a cold room insured the clock for much more money than people in a warm room. But it's not as if warm temperatures just make you a penny-pincher: In another scenario that gave the clock no sentimental value, there was no significant difference between the people in cold and warm rooms.

Melt Your Cold, Cold Credit Card

This suggests that blasting the AC in a department store might be about more than status — it might be swaying consumer choices, whether the store owners realize that or not. When someone is uncomfortably cold, they might decide on a purchase based on how happy a product makes them or the nostalgic memories it evokes rather than cold, rational calculations like price, quality, and utility.

If you ever notice yourself splurging on fun purchases in an ice-cold department store during the summer months or ordering a bit more delivery food than usual during the depths of winter, stop and ask yourself: are you spending that money because it's the right decision, or because it just feels good? There's nothing wrong with throwing around some fun money once in a while, as long as you're aware you're doing it.

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For all the ways your brain takes shortcuts, check out "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer February 26, 2019

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