Research scientists Christopher Hsee and Yuval Rottenstreich have asserted that people’s judgement and decision-making abilities can be impaired by an event such as the SARS outbreak, not because it induces negative feelings, but rather because it is an emotionally charged issue, regardless of the nature of the feelings it produces. Specifically, they argue that emotions lead people to become less sensitive to differences in the magnitude of numbers; they’re more likely to pay attention to the simple presence or absence of an event. In business terms, what this means is that people are more likely to pay attention to the simple presence or absence of an emotion-laden offer than to the specific numbers involved.
To test this idea, the researchers asked participants to spend a brief period of time thinking about some issues either emotionally or non-emotionally. Shortly afterwards, these research subjects were told to imagine that someone they knew was selling a set of Madonna CDs. Half of them were told that there were five CDs in the bundle, whereas the other half were told that there were ten. Participants were then asked to report the maximum amount they’d be willing to pay for the bundle.
The researchers found that those who had earlier practised thinking in an unemotional manner were willing to pay more for the set of ten CDs than for the set of five, which is quite rational. More interestingly, however, those who had earlier practised thinking in an emotional manner were less sensitive to the difference in the number of CDs, reporting that they would pay roughly the same for each set.
The results of this research suggest that emotional experience can have a detrimental impact on decision-making, perhaps allowing you to be persuaded by an offer when you shouldn’t be.
Christopher Hsee, George Loewenstein, Sally Blount and Max H. Bazerman once ran an experiment in which they asked people browsing used textbooks how much they would pay for a music dictionary that had 10,000 words and was in perfect condition. Another group was asked how much they would pay for a music dictionary with 20,000 words but a torn front cover. Neither group knew about the other dictionary. On average, the students were willing to pay $24 for the 10,000-word dictionary and $20 for the cover-torn 20,000-word one. The cover – irrelevant to looking up words – made a big difference.
The researchers then cornered another group and presented them with both options simultaneously. Now the students could compare the two options side by side. That changed their perception of the products. In this easy-to-compare group, the students said they would pay $19 for the 10,000-word dictionary and $27 for the 20,000-word one with the torn cover. Suddenly, with the introduction of a more clearly comparable aspect – number of words – the larger dictionary became more valuable, despite the torn cover.