I’m sure I’m not the only one to have used lockdown as an excuse for a bit of a clear-out. There’s nothing quite like being locked in with all the junk to realise just how little you need – or even want – it.
But you know what they say: one man’s trash is another’s treasure.
And so, my unwanted clutter now sits, gathering cyberdust, on eBay waiting for its new owner to spot them and initiate an impassioned bidding war.
And now’s the best time of the year to get your old stuff on eBay, because people spend more when it’s warmer.
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why we think we know more than we do
- The Yale Food Addiction Scale: Are you addicted to food?
- Addicted to Pepsi Max? Understand addiction in six minutes (video)
Seriously, there’s something about temperature that warms people up to digging deep in their pockets for items they might otherwise only be lukewarm about.
Research conducted in Israel shows that the average temperature on any given day is directly related to the number of online purchases made on a popular Israeli e-commerce site (Zwebner, Lee & Goldenberg, 2013).
Temperature is important to us
As Brits, we love to talk about the weather, literally. But even when we’re not discussing the greyness of the sky or the chance of rain next Tuesday, we frequently use weather-related metaphors in our day-to-day conversations.
Temperature is an important metaphor that we use, often without a second thought for its literal meaning. A musician warms up before a performance, as does a sports star. Parents might warm to their daughter’s new boyfriend after they get to know him. And in a treasure hunt we might be told we’re “getting warmer” as we get closer to the treasure.
On the other end of the metaphorical thermometer, we might mutter that some is cold-hearted, or complain about receiving the cold shoulder. We might even find that we get cold feet and no longer want to bungee jump off the edge of a canyon.
Warmer is generally more positive than colder.
Interestingly this isn’t something that we learn, our emotional attachment to temperature is something more primitive and instinctive.
Do we think in words?
As a brief aside, this fascinating philosophical question is relevant to our understanding of temperature.
As far as anyone has been able to prove (scientifically or even anecdotally), it is impossible to think without using words, once you have learned words.
It’s impossible to look at a frog without labelling it a frog. And even when we come across something new, our pre-existing schemata jump in to fill the gap of knowledge until we learn more.
The power of words in our conscious cognitive processes has led to many language-based interventions, such as neuro-linguistic programming – but that’s one for another day.
Philosophically, we can consider the role of language on thinking in different ways:
- Language limits our ability to learn as we are only able to learn that we were are able to label.
- Language liberates our ability to learn by giving us a shared framework by which to observe and organise information.
In the English-speaking world, for example, we see seven colours in the rainbow. However, some languages only have five colour words. Do they see a different rainbow? Or do they interpret what they see differently?
You might not have questioned the number of colours in the rainbow, but given that the rainbow actually shows a spectrum (not individual blocks of colour), this “fact” is actually entirely perceived.
Further evidence to support the notion that with think in words comes from research showing that infants aren’t able to code declarative memories before they acquire language.
Why is this all important? Well, it helps us answer the question of whether our affective connection to temperature is because of our language, or vice versa.
Temperature in languages
In the case of temperature metaphors, there seems to be congruence between languages.
In Mandarin, a generous person is described as having a “hot heart”. Even in Ojibwe – an indigenous tribe in Canada – which doesn’t tend to use metaphorical language, when someone looks fondly on another, they are said to look on that person with “very warm eyes” (á-kámá ánjê mmèmè mmèmè) (Fiske, 2019).
And not just in English, but in many languages, does an uncaring person possess a “cold heart”.
This apparent universality of temperature-based affective metaphors may well be indicative of an innate emotional connection with temperature.
Whilst we haven’t been able to explain why people prefer warmth to cold – we imagine there is an evolutionary reason – we are able to accept the probability that this preference is a universal bias.
But how can warmer temperatures make us spend more money?
It makes logical sense that we value things we like more than things we don’t like. Equally, we will be happy to spend more on things we value.
The issue (for our bank balance, at least) is that we are very bad at knowing whether we like something. Or, perhaps more accurately, we are bad at knowing whether we like something objectively, or because other environmental factors are making us think we like it.
Let’s see this in action by way of a series of experiments.
Remember Zwebner et al.’s (2013) finding that Israelis bought more things online when the temperature was hotter outside? Well, once the researchers had observed this significant effect of temperature on online shopping decision, they wanted to test the temperature variable in controlled conditions.
In one laboratory experiment, participants were given a hot or cold therapeutic pad to hold as part of a product review. In a second part of the study, participants were shown two other products and asked how much they would be willing to pay for those items.
Amazingly, the researchers found that participants who had held the hot therapeutic pad at the beginning of the experiment were willing to spend 36.1% more that those who had held the cold pad.
They’d only held the pad for 10 seconds! (Makes me realise the importance of a warm handshake… if physical contact ever returns!)
The researchers had another idea. This time, the participants weren’t asked to hold anything, but instead the temperature of the room was manipulated.
The room was set at a balmy 26°c or a slightly chilly 18°c. Both 4°c difference from a “comfortable” 22°c.
This time, different participants (109 university students) were shown pictures of 11 items that students would typically buy and were asked to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for each item.
Overall being in the warmer room resulted in participants stating they’d be willing to pay 10.4% more than those in the colder room.
Why does warmth make us spend more?
The researchers suggest that the consistent temperature effect, witnessed in real life and in the lab, is due to the emotional value of temperature.
It isn’t that warm temperatures make us more impulsive – participants took the same amount of time to make their decisions in hot and cold conditions.
The temperature effect is emotional – we actually value things more when they’re warm. The monetary value is less objective because the emotional value becomes more influential.
We can discuss why our evolutionary preference for warmth emerged ‘til the cows come home, but it’s probably better to spend the time listing anything you don’t want any more on eBay – I hear it’s set to be a hot weekend!
Fiske, A.P. (2019). Kama Muta: Discovering the Connecting Emotion, Routledge
Zwebner, Y., Lee, L., & Goldenberg, J. (2013). The temperature premium: warm temperatures increase product valuation, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24 (2), 251-259.
The Reading List
Philip Graves discusses the psychological “tricks and games” that shops play to manipulate customers’ purchasing behaviours.
A different angle on the psychology of shopping, this time looking at the power of the clothes themselves in addition to the retail environment.
Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy applies Daniel Kahneman’s approach to marketing and advertising. A combination of psychology, behavioural economics and neuroeconomics.
Rob Walker is a consumer journalist and columnist for the New York Times Magazine. He writes here about the power of brands on our identity and behaviours.
If you are interested in the overlap of language and emotion, you’ll enjoy this deep investigation of the “connecting emotion” by Alan Page Fiske. It’s called Kama Muta in Sanskrit but we don’t have a word for it in English.