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Changing emotions


Changing emotions has long been known by advertisers to have powerful effects on behaviour. There are a wide range of studies that show how affect can be used to influence decisions by both the private sector and in public campaigns.

In one experiment, direct mail advertisements for loan offers changed the price offered and also the advert contained in the mail. It was found that the advertising content had a significant effect on take-up of loans. Including a picture of an attractive, smiling female increased demand for the financial product by the same amount as a 25% decrease in the loan’s interest rate (Bertrand et al, 2010).

On a similar note, Gibson (2008) shows that the choice between Coke and Pepsi can be changed by the repeated pairing of positive or negative words and images with each brand. It seems that evoking an emotional reaction can change peoples’ proclivity to buy something, making them more or less likely to buy, depending on the emotion.

Provoking emotion has been shown to change health behaviours, too. Attempts to promote soap use in Ghana were originally based on the benefits of soap, but despite these efforts, only 3% of mothers washed hands with soap after using the toilet. Researchers noted that Ghanaians used soap when they felt that their hands were dirty (e.g., after cooking or travelling), implying that handwashing was provoked by feelings of disgust.

As a result, a new campaign focused on provoking disgust rather than promoting soap use. The television advertisement depicted a woman leaving the toilet with a red stain on her hands, which she transferred to the fufu (a popular staple food) she was preparing, which her child then ate. Soapy handwashing was also shown to work in the advert, sending a clear message that toilet use prompts worries of contamination and disgust and requires soap.

This video was incredibly successful and led to a 13% increase in the use of soap after the toilet and a 41% increase in reported soap use before eating (Curtis et al, 2007). It is not just confined to Ghana, either: Judah et al. (2009) present evidence that intervention messages provoking disgust can improve handwashing in western society, too.

Emotional states and behaviour

We all know that when we are hungry it can affect our decisions, most obviously by making us buy more food than we might need because we think we will also be hungrier in the future, a phenomenon known as projection bias (Loewenstein et al, 2003). Read & van Leeuwen (1998) show that a decision between a healthy and unhealthy snack in a week is affected by how hungry someone is now, with hungrier people more likely to choose the snack a week later, even though their present hunger will presumably be irrelevant.

Projection bias also occurs when people order clothing items such as raincoats from catalogues when it is raining (Conlin et al, 2007). Since the weather now is a poor guide to the weather in a couple of weeks’ time, it is likely this is influenced by the feelings induced by bad weather.

Other visceral emotions can influence our decisions in similar ways. Lerner et al. (2004) found that when individuals were disgusted, it reduced their Willingness to Pay (WTP) for an item they didn’t have and also reduced their Willingness to Accept (WTA) for an item they did have. WTP and WTA for the same item were also equal for the disgusted individuals, thus eliminating the Endowment Effect we saw from last week.

The same experiment showed that inducing sadness reduced WTA but increased WTP, creating a reverse endowment effect. People were happy to pay more for something they didn’t have than they would ask for in exchange for the same thing when they owned it. Clearly, incidental emotions can have far-reaching impacts on peoples’ decisions, flipping and reversing preferences.

Over to you

How do you think emotions can be used to affect behaviour? Are there any examples of effective adverts, campaigns, or even emotions that were not included above?


1. Conlin M, O’Donoghue T, Vogelsang TJ. Projection bias in catalog orders. American Economic Review. 2007 Sep;97(4):1217-49.
2. Curtis VA, Garbrah-Aidoo N, Scott B. Ethics in public health research: masters of marketing: bringing private sector skills to public health partnerships. American journal of public health. 2007 Apr;97(4):634-41.
3. Gibson B. Can evaluative conditioning change attitudes toward mature brands? New evidence from the Implicit Association Test. Journal of Consumer Research. 2008 Jun 1;35(1):178-88.
4. Lerner JS, Small DA, Loewenstein G. Heart strings and purse strings: Carryover effects of emotions on economic decisions. Psychological science. 2004 May;15(5):337-41.
5. Loewenstein G, O’Donoghue T, Rabin M. Projection bias in predicting future utility. the Quarterly Journal of economics. 2003 Nov 1;118(4):1209-48.
6. Read D, Van Leeuwen B. Predicting hunger: The effects of appetite and delay on choice. Organizational behavior and human decision processes. 1998 Nov 1;76(2):189-205.

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Cognitive Psychology: Employee and Customer Behaviour

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