Measuring the Reign of Moods

Opinion is colored by context: café food may taste better on a sunny day. A vacation weekend can sour if argument descends one evening.

April 30, 2014

This question is of essential relevance to marketers, who advertise on the premise that shining positive light on a product will encourage consumers, later, to buy that product. But what if positive associations dissipate long before purchases occur?

To test the persistent effect of mood on opinion, Nathan Novemsky of Yale University and Anastasiya Pocheptsova of the University of Maryland conducted a nuanced series of experiments: in one experiment, participants first read a narrative designed to generate either a positive or negative mood. After reading one of the stories, they viewed a painting. (In a third, neutral case, subjects read nothing before viewing the painting.) Some of the subjects were then asked how much they would like to hang that particular painting on their wall; others were asked instead to rate how much they like art. Five days later, all groups were asked by email how much they would like to have a copy of the painting.

An important difference emerged. The group that was asked to judge the specific painting immediately after reading a story—those who made “real-time” assessments—had biased judgments: reading a negative narrative lowered opinions of the painting while reading a positive narrative raised them. This same bias arose five days later in the email question. In other words, the effect of mood on judgments of the painting persisted for a week.

Meanwhile, when asked about the painting five days later, the group that had rated general enjoyment of art showed no bias, offering the same opinion as the neutral group.

“Once a real-time evaluation is made, this evaluation is likely to strongly influence later evaluations of the experience,” the authors explain. But if this real-time judgment is not made, then “one has to rely on episodic memory of the experience. Emotions are not generally stored as a part of episodic memory,” and so one’s mood at the time fades from consideration. Hitching emotion to experience at the time that judgments are formed appears integral to the temporal durability of this link.

Interestingly, if the participants were reminded of the narrative they had read days earlier, then they shifted their opinion of the painting. In other words, they “corrected” their opinion regardless of whether they were still feeling the effects of the original mood or not. “Whether or not the context is recalled at the time of judgment plays a critical role in mood effects in memory-based judgments,” the authors conclude. It seems the bright light of a good mood often fades over time, unless something is done to keep the light shining.

Some experiments were designed to capture a number of other subtleties about this process. For instance, when surveyed separately, people assume that mood will affect future opinions no matter what; intuition does not ferret out the importance of real-time assessment. The article also raises substantive questions for marketers interested in how to influence consumer opinion and decision-making. “Considering the fact that contexts can have both negative and positive effects on product evaluation and these contexts are frequently not under the control of marketers,” note the authors, “knowing how to include or exclude such contexts from consumers’ evaluations is an important topic for further