Mood lighting

A woman holding a light.

The next time you want to turn down the emotional intensity before making an important decision, you may want to dim the lights first.

Alison Jing Xu, assistant professor of management at UTSC, worked with Aparna Labroo of Northwestern University, conducting studies to examine a seeming paradox when it comes to lighting.

“Previous research shows that on sunny days people are more optimistic about the stock market, report higher well-being, and are more helpful,” says Xu, “while extended exposure to dark, gloomy days can result in seasonal affective disorder.”

But on sunny days, she adds, “what you find is that depression-prone people also become more depressed.” She points to peaks in suicide rates during late spring and summer, when sunshine is abundant.

Xu and Labroo asked participants to rate a wide range of things—the spiciness of chicken-wing sauce, the aggressiveness of a fictional character, how attractive someone was, their feelings about specific words, and the taste of two juices—under different lighting conditions.

The results: under bright lights people felt emotions more intensely. In the brighter room, participants wanted spicier sauce, thought the fictional character was more aggressive, found the person more attractive, felt better about positive words and worse about negative words, and drank more of the “favourable” juice and less of the “unfavourable” one.

Xu says the effect bright light has on our emotional system may be because it is perceived as heat, and the perception of heat can trigger an emotional response. “Bright light intensifies our initial emotional reactions, which
can be either positive or negative, to different kinds of stimulus including products and people.”

The majority of everyday decisions are made under bright light. So, turning down the light may help you make more rational decisions and settle negotiations more easily.

“Marketers may also adjust the lighting levels in the retail environment, according to the nature of the products on sale,” says Xu. “If you are selling emotionally expressive products such as flowers or engagement rings, it would make sense to make the store as bright as possible.”