Spending Through Sorrow

by Kenrick Cleveland

The John F. Kennedy School for Government at Harvard University recently released a study that found that even momentary sadness causes people to increase spending.

We know, as persuaders, that consumers purchase based on their emotions and gut instincts. Part of how we access these emotions is through criteria elicitation and appealing to their core values. The Harvard study, entitled, “Misery is Not Miserly: Sad and Self-Focused Individuals Spend More” will be published in ‘Psychological Science’ in June 2008. The study shows that people spend more when they’re in sad or inwardly focused says of mind as opposed to people in neutral states of mind.

When we as persuaders use anchoring and peak emotional says to sell, we are utilizing a feeling of self focus (and on occasion, sorrow, especially in the case of people with an ‘away from’ orientation.)

The study was performed by inciting a heightened state of self focus. Then the participant was shown either a sad video clip or a neutral video clip which advertised the product they were being presented with. The people who watched the sad clip offered 300% more than the neutral participants.

My guess is that a positive, happy and upbeat video clip would have had the same effect of increasing spending. Why? It’s an increased emotional state. If the researchers were aware of towards and away orientations, they’d have further developed a deep understanding of peak emotional states.

The towards and away continuum is powerful in determining how your prospect responds in specific contexts. Not everyone views the world through rose colored glasses. There are people who will respond positively to a negative associations.

If you’re a financial adviser and you determine your prospect’s deepest criteria is ’security’, you can then determine the orientation by asking the question, ‘What will having financial security do for you?’ Depending on the answer, you can fashion the language you use to that orientation, whether towards or away.

If they state, ‘Well, I’m tired of worrying about my finances. . .’ That’s an away from. If they state, ‘Well, I just want to stay in control of my finances. . .’ That’s more of a toward orientation.

With the away from person, you don’t want to be optimistic, just as with the toward person, you don’t want to be pessimistic. Tailoring your language in such a way that you bring more “pain” to the away person and more “ease” to the toward is really the key to selling.

I don’t think the Harvard study got it wrong, but I do believe they only uncovered part of the story.

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