Shopping with your heart makes sense, says Queen's business prof

New study shows that emotion-based decisions lead to long-term satisfaction

KINGSTON, Ont. – Going with your "gut feeling" when making a major purchase isn't a bad thing after all, says Queen's University School of Business researcher Laurence Ashworth. In fact – contrary to popular belief – listening to your heart when shopping can make you happier in the long run.

And emotion can play just as big a part when purchasing a house or a car as when buying a bottle of shampoo.

The results of a series of studies, published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, suggest that people make "affective" purchases – based on their emotional reaction to a product – even when there is clear information suggesting an alternative product is better.

And surprisingly, such choices can lead to greater long-term satisfaction for important purchases.

"This is the first time that longer lasting positive effects of using emotions in important purchase decisions have been shown," says Dr. Ashworth, an expert in consumer behavior. "In such instances, emotions make a lot of sense. People feel them for good reasons, not just inherent biases, and they can actually lead us to more satisfactory choices in the long run."

Co-authors with Dr. Ashworth on the paper are Peter Darke of UBC and Amitava Chattopadhyay of INSEAD in France. Funding comes from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and R&D INSEAD.

One of the surprising findings from the study is that emotion has a strong impact on consumers' decisions to buy "high-involvement" products. These are products that are important to them, typically due to a high price tag or the way the product relates to their self-image. It is much more widely accepted that emotions affect the purchase of low-involvement items as consumers tend not to think about the decision as carefully.

This research challenges existing assumptions that consumer decisions based on feelings are erroneous or impulsive choices which the buyer often regrets in the long term, says Dr. Ashworth. So-called "impulse buying" – where people feel an overwhelming urge to buy something immediately, despite knowing that they shouldn't – is a different kind of behaviour, he explains. "With impulse buying, emotions clearly are a bad thing!"

The studies involved both real-life situations, where data was collected from people making actual purchases, and more controlled experiments in which emotions unrelated to the product were created artificially. In the experiments, subjects were asked to rate portable CD players, some loaded with positive music and others containing negative songs. The feelings generated by the music tended to be misattributed to the product, which led consumers to choose the player associated with the most positive feelings, in spite of information that suggested the other player was superior.

When it was pointed out to test subjects that their emotions were coming from the music rather than the product itself, the magnitude of this effect was reduced, the researchers note. But because some of the misattribution was below their level of awareness, they were still more likely to opt for a product where a positive feeling had been artificially created.

"I think it is legitimate for marketers to point out the emotional benefits of a product – since as we've shown that can lead to long-lasting satisfaction," says Dr. Ashworth. "But there is obviously potential for abuse of consumers here as well."

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PLEASE NOTE: A PDF copy of this paper is available upon request.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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