I am at a conference this week. There are some 13,000 participants so it is taking place in a very large events Centre in Milan. Yesterday the outside temperature was 32 degrees. It takes time for the air conditioning system to cool such large spaces. It had not been turned on early enough!. With over 300 people in a single room the result was that it was uncomfortably hot. This took me back to thinking about the effect of temperature on our thought processes as consumers. I started down this intellectual pathway in my letter in July last year (#016).
Too Hot to Think
I returned to what we know about how we behave as consumers at different temperatures. I am not just talking about extreme temperatures. Instead the possible range at which stores and service businesses might chose. It is limited and between 67 and 77 F (or 20 and 25 C). My earlier Newsletter showed that we know temperatures above this level can cause aggression. American football “violence fouls” increase with the temperature. That same aggression effect happens in auctions. Changing the temperature of the room from 20 to 25 increases the “aggression” of the bidders. There are more bids and the prices tend to go higher.
Findings from the human resources field show that productivity in the office goes down as the temperature goes up. The most productive temperature is around 20C. Most people say they are more comfortable at 25C. This may explain the fight for the thermostat in most offices. In the marketing field I was struck by some studies. They show that as the temperature goes up we use more “auto-pilot” decision making. We tend to make more decisions using heuristics and our accumulated expertise. A warmer temperature seems to deplete our “cognitive resources”. It is too hot to think.
It seems that if our brain is busy sorting out the impact of higher temperatures we have less capacity for other decisions. In St Louis in the USA there is a huge range of temperatures during the course of a year. The winters are below freezing. The summer days can get as high as 87F or 31C. They have a State Lottery which offers daily prizes. Over the years the daily offer has expanded to include different kinds of bets. These include the simple lottery, scratch cards and electronic terminals. The complexity of the bets is very different. The lottery is the easiest to understand. The researchers looked at the daily betting patterns across the year. They compared it with the daily temperatures. It turns out that the amount and mix of bets placed varies by the temperature. At very high temperatures the overall bets made declines. On hot days more people place simpler bets. Only when it gets cooler do the gamblers feel like they can tackling something more complex.
Researchers have been able to replicate the results in the laboratory. They have set the laboratory temperature at either 20C or 25C and then done their experiments. Sure enough the hot temperatures reduce the complexity of the bets that people are prepared to take. They have also shown that effectiveness on a simple computer based proofreading test goes down. More mistakes are missed as the temperature goes up.
The interesting part of their study is when they introduced further cognitive depletion. They “tired the brain out” before assessing the impact of temperature. Respondents were shown a silent video clip of a woman being interviewed. They were told that their task later would be to evaluate the interviewee. On the side of the screen would occasionally appear a series of random words. Half of the group were told to consciously screen out the words. The other half received no such instructions to engage their brains. They then gave people the proof reading task again. They found that people who caught the maximum number of typos had two characteristics. They were in the cooler room. They also had not been asked to focus on screening out the words. If they had been “depleted” by the interviewee task they did less well in the cooler room. At the higher temperature the extra depletion had no effect. This demonstrates that the increased temperature is already reducing our thinking power.
Making Purchase Decisions in the Heat
Higher temperatures place a load on our brains. This means we are less effective at complex tasks. It also influences our decision making as consumers. The same researchers used complex mobile phone plans to investigate this. These plans are always complex. They need complex trade-offs between fixed and variable costs and free services. They constructed two plans. A cursory look at the charges for activity beyond the plan, would suggest that Plan A was cheaper. However a detailed review of Plan B would show that was actually cheaper. This was because it gives the user more “in Plan free minutes”.
The results were as expected. The higher the temperature the less effort was expended and the more likely that Plan A would be chosen. At cooler temperatures if respondents where given an extra task to “tire their brain” this too increased the choice of the less appropriate plan. A cool room and no depletion meant more people chose the “correct” plan.
It turns out from this study that at higher temperatures we are also less likely to buy innovative products. This is also not surprising since understanding something new requires mental effort. In their case it was a clever pen voice recorder.
But Being Old Makes you Feel Cooler
At first sight it might appear that age will help. Our sense of temperature comes from two separate systems. We senses hot and cold on two different” circuits”. They overlap but operate independently. The cold circuit deteriorates faster with age. Older people will feel colder at a given temperature. If the temperature goes up, they may not feel the impact. They will not be driven more towards heuristic decision making.
Older people however have a higher propensity to use “auto pilot” decision making anyway, I have argued in other Newsletters that such decision making is not necessarily bad. They have made far more purchases. Often they have developed expertise in these decisions. They do not need to start from scratch and engage full “System 2” thinking. They can make the decision automatically. Alternatively they can engage a truncated version. System 2 is typified by a deliberative decision process involving a full selection of alternatives and lots of information. With lots of expertise they need to collect less information. They will reduce the number of alternatives that they consider. All this leads to much more efficient decision making. This leaves more time and brain capacity for the “important things in life”.
When it comes to sorting out a mobile or cell phone plan we may need to re-engage. The older brain is already working harder. It is filling in the gaps for the decline in our senses. Perceptual completion takes effort. If we are going to make complex purchases perhaps we should not do it in a hot Milan Conference Centre.
A recent study in New York measured the showroom temperature in a series of outlets. It turned out that the more expensive the store the cooler the temperature. It ranged from 20 degrees at Bergdorf Goodman to 25C in the Levi Store. It makes one wonder whether the different stores have a different view of how their consumers make their decisions. Are the cheaper stores looking for impulse purchases. Do the expensive stores know that purchasing their products requires more cognitive effort? Maybe they just have not read the 2012 Journal of Consumer Research