Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making

Authors: Baba Shiv, University of Iowa; Alexander Fedorikhan, Washington State University

Publication: Journal of Consumer Research

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Persuasion, Decision Making, Emotion

Relevance: The products offered to people in scams, as well as the presentation of these products, may appeal to victims’ emotions. If victims are preoccupied with other mental tasks – if they have few processing resources available – they may be more likely to make decisions based on emotions rather than reason, especially if they are impulsive personalities to begin with.

Summary: This experiment tested how people make decisions when they are preoccupied with another mental task. The authors suggest that processing resources are a limited resource; that if a person is using some of their processing resources to perform a task, like remembering numbers, they will make decisions based on their emotions rather than on critical thinking.

  • When people were asked to choose between chocolate cake and fruit salad while remembering a seven-digit number, 63% chose the cake, which is more rewarding on an emotional basis. Of people who made this decision while remembering a two-digit number (a less challenging mental task), only 41% chose cake.
  • When the same experiment was performed using photographs of cake and fruit salad, rather than the real objects, there was no difference between the seven-digit and two-digit memory groups. The photographs, which only symbolized the object, did not elicit the same emotional response (and corresponding decisions) that the real objects did.
  • The subjects were also scored on a test of impulsiveness versus prudence. High scorers, the “impulsives,” were much more likely than people with low scores to choose the cake when they were simultaneously performing a difficult mental task. Both groups had similar results when they were not preoccupied with a difficult mental task.

Author Abstract: This article examines how consumer decision making is influenced by automatically evoked task-induced affect and by cognitions that are generated in a more controlled manner on exposure to alternatives in a choice task. Across two experiments respondents chose between two alternatives: one (chocolate cake) associated with more intense positive affect but less favorable cognitions, compared to a second (fruit salad) associated with less favorable affect but more favorable cognitions. Findings from the two experiments suggest that if processing resources are limited, spontaneously evoked affective reactions rather than cognitions tend to have a greater impact on choice. As a result, the consumer is more likely to choose the alternative that is superior on the affective dimension but inferior on the cognitive dimension (e.g., chocolate cake). In contrast, when the availability of processing resources is high, cognitions related to the consequences of choosing the alternatives tend to have a bigger impact on choice compared to when the availability of these resources is low. As a result, the consumer is more likely to choose the alternative that is inferior on the affective dimension but superior on the cognitive dimension (e.g., fruit salad). The moderating roles of the mode of presentation of the alternatives and of a personality variable related to impulsivity are also reported.

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