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Beware of Hidden Smiles: They May Affect Your Judgment More Than You Think

Hidden Smiles Make Consumers Want to Consume More

Think you're not affected by those around you - particularly in your desire to consume, buy or form an opinion? You may want to think again.

According to studies led by Piotr Winkielman, associate professor of psychology at UCSD, people altered their consumption behaviors after being exposed to "hidden" facial expressions. The study revealed that people might be influenced by emotional cues without being aware that their feelings are being changed.

"This is the first demonstration that you can influence consequential, real-world behavior without affecting conscious feeling. We can change what you do, without changing how you feel," Winkielman said.


A smiling face may subconsciously influence you to pay more for something.

Smiles Made People Want More (and Pay More for It)

In the study, after participants rated how thirsty and hungry they were, they were subliminally exposed to happy, angry and neutral faces. Each face was masked by a neutral face so the subjects were only aware of seeing neutral faces. They were then offered an unidentified beverage.

Those people who were thirsty poured and drank more than twice the amount of beverage after being "primed" with happy faces than after angry ones.

Next, the participants were asked to evaluate a small sample of a drink. Thirsty participants said they'd pay 38 cents for the drink after seeing happy faces, but only 10 cents for it after seeing the angry faces. They also said they'd like an extra half cup of the beverage instead of one to two sips.

However, the subjects did need to be thirsty in order for the 'unconscious' emotional cues to have an effect. Those who reported being moderately thirsty were only moderately affected and those who were not thirsty were not affected at all.

Good News for Consumers

You need not worry about advertisers or politicians taking advantage of subconscious emotions to influence your purchase or your vote. Says Winkielman, "Motivation matters ... your motivational state -- your level of need -- prepares you to process relevant information and gives value to the stimulus. Otherwise, the emotional message falls on deaf ears."

Winkielman also pointed out that the effects of the subliminal emotions were very short-lived. That means that even if you were motivated to make a purchase (or a vote), the effects of any subliminal marketing would likely be gone by the time you got to the store or voting booth.

Sad Face

Don't let a sad mood trick you into buying more than you bargained for.

Beware of Emotional Buying

As any consumer knows, your own emotions can and do influence your decisions, including what you decide to spend your money on. That's why car dealers are trained to be so nice and smile while showing you their cars--to appeal to your emotional side. Try to steel yourself to such tactics to avoid letting your emotions get the better of you.

In any kind of negotiation, including the kind that goes on during car buying, it's important to keep your goal in mind. Says literary agent Lynn Nesbit, who's worked with major names like Michael Crichton and Tom Wolfe, in a Money magazine article, "Force yourself to maintain a certain level of detachment. You don't want to become so emotionally involved in a deal that it hurts your ability to see it clearly. When I sense that feeling coming on, I [briefly] disengage."

And, avoid shopping for major purchases when you're sad. According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, "Sadness triggered an implicit need for individuals to change their circumstances, thus a greater willingness to buy new goods or to sell goods that they already had."

Recommended Reading

The Six Debt Triggers for Women

Smile! The Remarkable Personal Benefits of Smiling

Health Orbit: Hidden Smiles Influence Consumption and Judgment May 26, 2005

Carnegie Mellon Press Release

Money Magazine: How to Negotiate Anything

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