Bright Lights, Big Feelings
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Marketing Jun 2, 2014

Bright Lights, Big Feelings

Emo­tion­al respons­es inten­si­fy when you turn up the lights.

Yevgenia Nayberg​

Based on the research of

Alison Jing Xu

Aparna Labroo

A light with­out shad­ow gen­er­ates an emo­tion with­out reserve,” wrote the crit­ic and philoso­pher Roland Barthes over half a cen­tu­ry ago. Aparna Labroos recent study on the effect of bright light on emo­tion­al respons­es reflects Barthes’ sen­ti­ment per­fect­ly. The study by Labroo, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, and Ali­son Jing Xu of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, found that ambi­ent bright­ness ampli­fies both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive emo­tion­al reac­tions to the world around us.

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Labroo is inter­est­ed in what she calls below-the-radar influ­ences on con­sumer judg­ment.” These include how phys­i­o­log­i­cal fac­tors affect con­sumer deci­sions. She was curi­ous about what impact ambi­ent light­ing might have, so she scanned the exist­ing research — and found two seem­ing­ly con­flict­ing ideas. 

The first was that bright light increas­es pos­i­tive feel­ings. Peo­ple tend to feel bet­ter and more opti­mistic when it is sun­ny out; even the stock mar­ket does bet­ter on sun­ny days. The sec­ond was that sui­cides increase when the weath­er is nice. Few­er sui­cides occur in the win­ter months, with the high­est num­bers in late spring and sum­mer, when sun­shine is abundant.

These two streams of lit­er­a­ture didn’t seem to rec­on­cile,” says Labroo. But she and Xu devel­oped a hypoth­e­sis that might explain the para­dox: We said, maybe it’s the ini­tial gut reac­tion that gets ampli­fied in bright light.” Bright light usu­al­ly cor­re­lates with heat, and heat is linked to emo­tion­al inten­si­ty. This psy­cho­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence of heat turns on the hot emo­tion­al sys­tem,” they wrote recent­ly in the Jour­nal of Con­sumer Psy­chol­o­gy, inten­si­fy­ing a person’s emo­tion­al reac­tions to any stim­u­lus. Thus, in bright light, good feels bet­ter and bad feels worse.”

Is It Hot in Here or Just Bright?

To test this idea, the pair con­duct­ed a series of six exper­i­ments over a two-year peri­od. First, they test­ed whether bright light does in fact increase our per­cep­tion of heat. Sure enough, the researchers observed that stu­dents who were sit­ting in a bright­ly lit room expe­ri­enced the room as warmer than stu­dents sit­ting in the same room at the same tem­per­a­ture, but with the light­ing dimmed.

In addi­tion to tem­per­a­ture, the effect also extends to our pref­er­ences for hot” foods. In anoth­er study, stu­dents in either bright­ly or dim­ly lit rooms ordered chick­en wings from a menu that offered 16 lev­els of hot sauce; those in the brighter rooms tend­ed to want spici­er sauce.

Even our judg­ments about hot-tem­pered — and hot-and-sexy” — indi­vid­u­als are ampli­fied. In yet anoth­er study, par­tic­i­pants were shown a script for a mock TV com­mer­cial, fea­tur­ing a man who behaves in ways that could be con­sid­ered aggres­sive. He honks at some­one while dri­ving to work; he curs­es out some­one in a park­ing lot; he rush­es past a preg­nant woman get­ting on an ele­va­tor. He could’ve just been in a hur­ry,” Labroo says, or very pissed off at life.” When asked to eval­u­ate his aggres­sive­ness, par­tic­i­pants in brighter light rat­ed him more hot-tem­pered. The same par­tic­i­pants were then asked to look at a series of female mod­els sup­pos­ed­ly being con­sid­ered for cast­ing in a print ad. Those sit­ting in the bright­ly lit room rat­ed all three women hot­ter” than those in the dim­ly lit room did. The exper­i­ment, wrote Labroo, showed that bright light polar­izes judg­ments of both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive stimuli.”

The con­nec­tion between light and heat, say the researchers, may run deep in our psy­ches, with bright light cre­at­ing an illu­so­ry expe­ri­ence of heat.”

By now, says Labroo, we had inferred that bright light changes our crav­ing for things that are thrilling,” as well as how we per­ceive dif­fer­ent kinds of heat in our envi­ron­ment. But anoth­er exper­i­ment went even fur­ther. Par­tic­i­pants were asked to report their feel­ings toward a series of pos­i­tive, neg­a­tive, and neu­tral words — ones that, unlike pre­vi­ous stud­ies, were in no way asso­ci­at­ed with the word hot.” Again they found the ampli­fi­ca­tion effect: in bright light, people’s reac­tions to both the pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive words increased.

A Deep Con­nec­tion

The con­nec­tion between light and heat, say the researchers, may run deep in our psy­ches, with bright light cre­at­ing an illu­so­ry expe­ri­ence of heat.” The stud­ies at hand sug­gest that light and heat are so tight­ly cou­pled that light can trig­ger our hot emo­tion­al sys­tem — for bet­ter or for worse — even in the absence of phys­i­cal heat.

Labroo and Xu are not the first to con­sid­er this rela­tion­ship. Take the quo­ta­tion from Barthes, which the pair uses to intro­duce their paper. It’s nice to see sim­i­lar intu­itions reflect­ed across dif­fer­ent fields and meth­ods,” says Labroo. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ing to see some­one asso­ci­at­ed with both phi­los­o­phy and semi­otics express sim­i­lar thoughts. It also affirms our effect is inter­est­ing to peo­ple beyond our discipline.”

Indeed, the study has impli­ca­tions for con­sumers, mar­keters, and even pol­i­cy­mak­ers, says Labroo, giv­en the range of deci­sions we make in bright light.” If we are drink­ing a bev­er­age we love, we are like­li­er to indulge in a brighter room (in fact, in anoth­er study the researchers find this to be true). If we are enjoy­ing a shop­ping expe­ri­ence, we might spend more in brighter light. And since it changes the way we per­ceive oth­ers, it could even make a dif­fer­ence in nego­ti­a­tions,” Labroo says. Want to sway oth­ers with an impas­sioned plea? Con­sid­er a noon­time meet­ing in a bright room. Or dim the lights and let cool­er heads prevail.

About the Writer

Hillary Rosner is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

About the Research

Xu, Alison Jing, and Aparna Labroo. 2014. “Incandescent Affect: Turning on the Hot Emotional System with Bright Light.” Journal of Consumer Psychology. 24 (2): 207–216.

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