Consumer Behaviour

Why Sad People Avoid Purchasing Happy Experiences

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Research suggests that an enjoyable experience may only make unhappy people feel better if they do not think extensively about doing it beforehand

Unhappy people often take part in enjoyable activities to try to improve their mood. Yet if sad people are encouraged to adopt a so-called positive mood-repair strategy – where they imagine something uplifting, such as booking a holiday at a stunning beach resort in Hawaii, for example – it can spark conflicting emotions.

The contrast between their negative mood and the idea of the idyllic holiday can make it more difficult for them to imagine the positive experience, leading them to be less attracted to the activity.

#CBKOnlineSeries | Why Sad People Avoid Purchasing Happy Experiences

Hao Shen, Professor at the Department of Marketing and the Director for the MSc Programme in Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, investigated this possibility – and the reasons why it may occur – to offer a fresh understanding of the impact of mood on the behaviour of consumers, which could, for example, help advertisers to better tailor marketing campaigns to potential customers in the future.

His research, carried out with Prof. Aparna Labroo at Northwestern University, and Prof. Robert Wyer from the University of Cincinnati, was part of the paper, “So Difficult to Smile: Why Unhappy People Avoid Enjoyable Experiences”.

Bodily Feedback

“Our findings confirmed that when unhappy people imagine having an enjoyable activity it ends up reducing their appreciation of the experience rather than increasing it,” Prof. Shen says.

“People who are experiencing negative feelings often tend to frown automatically, leading to sensory feedback from nerve endings which is inconsistent with the natural inclination to smile if they were to repair their mood by doing an enjoyable experience.

“This incompatibility makes the happy activity more difficult for sad people to imagine doing and consequently has a negative impact on the activity’s attractiveness, so they evaluate the enjoyable experience less favourably than they would have done otherwise.”

Prof. Shen says the research, in contrast with previous studies, provides new insights into understanding the effects of imagining an experience on judgments of it.

The effects of the nerve ending feedbacks from facial expressions such as smiling or frowning spontaneously brought about by imagining a happy or sad experience, the difficulty of imagining activities that are incompatible with their mood, in combination with the mood the person is experiencing at the time, have not been examined before, he says.

Unhappy people may have difficulty responding to an advert that encourages them to imagine a positive experience … such as having a holiday in Hawaii. The advert might have a detrimental effect on evaluations of the holiday.

Prof. Hao Shen

“Our findings suggest that an enjoyable experience may only make unhappy people feel better if they engage in this experience without thinking extensively about it beforehand.”

When participants imagine having an experience before they actually do so, metacognitive experiences – the act of thinking about thinking something – may override the effects of mood repair, Prof. Shen says.

“Such thinking might mean, for example, that people who were thinking about going on a holiday to Hawaii would be less disposed to make any travel plans if they were feeling unhappy at the time, rather than if they were not.

“People who are feeling unhappy may have difficulty responding to an advert that encourages them to imagine having a positive experience with a product featured in a promotion, such as a holiday in Hawaii. In such cases, the advert might have a detrimental effect on evaluations of the holiday.”

He and his colleagues carried out six different tests, which they completed in a laboratory in Hong Kong with the help of 1,022 undergraduate participants.

They used a variety of methods to influence the mood of participants before the start of the tests, including asking some of them to imagine a sad experience or watch a sad video, so that they could examine how it might affect their behaviour.

The tests typically involved asking students their preferences for a comedy or action film, or popular Hong Kong songs, or whether they would be happy to sing the song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Some of the studies looked specifically at the effect of people’s facial expressions on their preference for an imagined experience.

Simulating Facial Expressions

In one of them, the researchers subtly influenced the expression of participants’ mouths while they imagined the pleasant experience, so that they had to form either a smile, by holding a biscuit between their teeth, or a frown, by holding the biscuit between their lips.

“We found that a frown-like expression reduced participants’ relative preference for an enjoyable activity to a greater extent than a smile-like expression did,” Prof. Shen says.

“We replicated this effect for participants who experienced a negative mood. Moreover, activating muscles associated with smiling among unhappy participants who imagined engaging in a pleasant activity eliminated the negative effect of any difficulty they find in imagining the said experience.

“These studies showed that feeling unhappy decreased a participant’s preference for a pleasant experience compared with a neutral one.”

The study also found that unhappy people are less likely to engage in a happy experience when they focus on the actual doing of the said activity rather than imagine the outcome of it, i.e., feeling better as a result of doing something enjoyable.


Have a Nice Holiday, if the Weather Permits!

It was also found that unhappy people find it easier to imagine doing an unpleasant activity, presumably because it elicited facial expressions that were consistent with what they were already experiencing.

Finally, the study found that people who habitually visualize doing something before actually doing it (as opposed to others who usually skip this imaginative process) are also less motivated to engage in an enjoyable activity when they are unhappy.

Although the research supported the role of facial expressions in driving the effect that the studies had observed, this was clearly not the only way that a negative mood could make people avoid embracing an enjoyable experience, so further research could help to examine these other possibilities, he said.

“Although we did not expect the effects we observed might be moderated by the cultural background of the participants, future research could be done to test whether our effects can be generalised to participants from other areas or countries as well.”